William Peirce

A good deal of the research into students' ability to reason in their college courses suggests that they don't reason well because they haven't been taught to in high school. The National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) for 1992 discovered that even the best students have great difficulty developing arguments using evidence and reasons. Four years later, the 1996 NAEP showed that most high school students do not read and write well.  The percentage of high school students who arrive in college ready to learn independently from their textbooks is only 6 %. The percentage who write well is even lower (2 %) and  those who write adequately is not high--less than a third (31 %).

Yet another body of research suggests that reasoning in college is closely linked to a variety of academic skills and that improving students' reasoning ability means improving their academic literacy--a  holistic approach to solving a variety of problems caused by students' lack of prepraration for college.  According to Sherrie L. Nist of the University of Georgia, "Academic literacy is a term that is used to describe the skills and strategies that college students need in order to be successful in the courses they take. It covers reading, writing, listening, studying, and critical thinking processes." Nist's article "What the Literature Says About Academic Literacy" presents first the bad news (students haven't been taught the reading, thinking, and study skills they need) and then the good news: We can do someting about it. Her article is summarized here (Georgia Journal of Reading, fall-winter 1993).

Nist's article points to ten differences in how the academic literacy expectations of college teachers differ from high school teachers:

1. Most high school students "enter college believing that learning is merely a compilation of facts. Students with such beliefs have problems in conceptualizing . . . . Such beliefs are especially true in courses such as history where high school teachers may have emphasized learning names, dates, facts, etc. at the expense on conceptualization. Certainly some memorization of facts is necessary at the college level, but most courses require students to go beyond this basic level of understanding and thinking."

2. "Students are unprepared for the reading demands [of college] because they have not had to read in high school. When students come to college and expect to receive a rehash in lecture of what was presented in the text (as is often the case in high school), they have a difficult time adjusting."

3. Students are not taught explicitly in high school "how to carry out basic studying and note-taking procedures to meet college academic literacy demands. . . . What little they knew, they picked up instinctively. In addition, most students were surprised to discover that what worked in high school didn't work in college. [Even students with good HS grades] discovered that the study processes they used in high school were both inefficient and ineffective for getting good grades in college."

4. Even when college professors are quite clear about an academic task, students did not know what to do to produce what was asked. "Many waited until the night before to begin thinking about [a history essay exam question given a week in advance] then found they didn't really understand the question. Many more continued to memorize names and dates, although nothing in the academic task outlined by the professor suggested that this would be the correct thing to do. In short, students 'hung on for dear life' to what had worked for them in high school and then subsequently performed poorly on the test."

5. College teachers assume certain behaviors that students do not, in fact, have. High school students often have only to listen in class to do well on a high school test, yet college teachers assume that they have learned to take notes (which they haven't) and that they use them to study well (which they don't).

6. College teachers also assume that students have learned how to write answers to essay questions, when in fact they have written only multiple-choice tests in high school. In Nist's study, "Students often wrote essays that lacked supporting information, were poorly organized, and lacked analysis and synthesis--something that had been conveyed rather clearly by the professor. In fact, many of the students in the study had a distorted view of what an essay in this class should entail. They wrote three or four sentences and then wondered why they received only a small number of points, or . . . no credit at all."

7. "In terms of critical thinking, . . . even 'ambitious college-bound seniors' don't think about and interpret information in a discipline the way a college professor does."

8. "The way students study for and think about a discipline may be highly dependent on their epistemological views of learning. . . . How students define learning relates strongly to how they go about defining and pursuing academic literacy. . . . Students disproportionately define learning as memorizing and thus proceed to learn in this manner whether or not it is appropriate to the situation." Many students do not seem to know that they have taken surface approaches to learning; whereas their college professors are taking deep approaches.

9. "In general, students seem not to be metacognitively aware." Some students are unaware they don't understand something; others may be aware of "what they don't understand but don't know what to do about it. Many students go back and reread and reread information that they don't understand only to find that repeated rereadings help very little."

10. The level of cognitive tasks in high school is more often tied to standardized test criteria than it is to teaching students to think, analyze, and synthesize at higher levels. . . . Success in college is generally not tied to standardized tests.


1. Students need to be taught "to be active, strategic readers and learners." According to Elizabeth Chiseri-Slater, "Extensive and demanding reading is at the heart of most [college courses]. The close reading of texts, in fact, is an "assumed" college literacy skill, based on very little evidence of students' reading abilities, and with no guidance offered on how to accomplish this." (from Academic Literacies: The Public and Private Discourse of University Students, 1991)

2. "Students need to be taught a repertoire of study strategies (not skills)." They need to be taught how to think conceptually and how to problem solve.

3. "Students need to learn that writing is a tool that can be used to refine, synthesize, and reflect knowledge. Because students tend to be memorizers, they have a difficult time putting what they have read and heard into their own voice. . . . Many fail to note that much of the way they learn is through writing--taking lecture notes, isolating key ideas from a text, constructing strategies from which to study, being responsible for summarizing and paraphrasing."

4. Colleges must teach what high schools do not, rather than assume they have learned it.

5. "Much more needs to be done with teaching monitoring and metacognitive awareness."

6. "We need to think more about how motivation and other affective variables influence academic literacy."

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