Habits of Mind for Success

04 September 2018 Written by   J. Michael Rifenburg and Duane Roen
Students in Michael Rifenburg’s first-year composition class at the University of North Georgia workshop their essays. Students in Michael Rifenburg’s first-year composition class at the University of North Georgia workshop their essays.

In the late 1800s, professors at Harvard lamented the writing skills of their affluent white male students. In the 1970s, Newsweek lamented the writing skills of students with their bold headline “Why Johnny Can’t Write.” In 2018, as we work with communities in Arizona and Georgia, we hear the lament again: students can’t write. One way we speak against this erroneous, yet persistent claim is by inviting all stakeholders in US higher education to view writing as an amalgamation of cognitive skills honed through a lifetime of reading and thinking and writing. Let’s complicate the perspective that writing is a set of discrete skills easily honed and easily assessed. One productive lens through which we can view writing more accurately is the Framework for Success in Postsecondary Writing.

When the Council of Writing Program Administrators, the National Council of Teachers of English, and the National Writing Project collaborated to craft Framework for Success in Postsecondary Writing, the taskforce focused on writing because that was the charge. However, the core of the document, the eight habits of minds, can be applied much more broadly to include other academic subject areas, as well as other arenas of life beyond the academic—the professional, civic, and personal. As we consider the broad applications of curiosity, responsibility, flexibility, openness, persistence, engagement, creativity, and metacognition, we do so in the context of our own life experiences. When we talk with students, we often offer advice about how the habits of mind can help them be more successful in their studies, careers, civic engagement, and personal interactions.

To begin, curiosity can be a powerful force for driving learning. That principle appears most explicitly in small children, who often drive their caregivers to distraction by asking a stream of questions that begin with the words how and why. We encourage college students to ramp up their levels of curiosity in any class by posing this question: “How can I use what am learning in this class elsewhere in my life?”

When we discuss responsibility with students, we observe that successful people take responsibility for both their successes and their failures. College is a safe place to experience failure because many people stand ready to help—teachers, advisors, counselors, financial aid staff, and others.

We encourage students to be flexible and open to ideas and new perspectives. Their college classmates will bring to class worldviews that may differ widely from theirs. They don’t need to endorse or embrace those views, but putting them in dialogue with their own ideas can enrich their learning and lives in unexpected ways.

Persistence is crucial for success. Duane likes to share an example from his own life. He and his life partner, Maureen, have written in a family journal every day since October 1978 and, writing just fifteen minutes a day, they have amassed more than 16,000 pages of stories about their family. We encourage students to invest at least fifteen minutes a day in each of their classes, especially classes that are difficult or not favorites. Learning can be pretty painless when it occurs in small doses.

We frequently see how engagement can make a difference in students’ lives. Michael works at the University of North Georgia, which received the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching's community engagement classification, the foundation's only elective classification. As director of first-year composition, Michael works closely with his university’s Center for Teaching, Learning, and Leadership and the director of academic engagement to weave service-learning components into sections of first-year composition. More broadly, instructors, administrators, and staff across US higher education can talk with students about what it means to be engaged in class, in the tutoring center, and with classmates outside of class. We also encourage them to engage with student clubs and organizations, such as student government. We encourage them to engage in campus events, which can enhance their emotional connection to school. Cheering in the student section at a football game can produce lifelong memories.

When we ask students which majors require creativity, we are pleased that they respond with “All of them do.” When we ask students what their responses mean, they observe that creativity in this case means developing new ways of solving problems, and every arena of life has plenty of problems to solve.

Metacognition is like reflection—both of which invite learners to step back from the immediate here-and-now of learning and consider the how and why of their learning processes. When students reflect on their learning, they reinforce that learning. In our classes we use the WPA Outcomes Statement and the Framework to guide students’ reflections by asking them questions such as “How have you achieved your learning goals for this class?” and “What evidence can you provide to demonstrate your learning?” and “Why do you think your evidence is compelling?” and “How do you see yourself using this learning elsewhere in your life?” and “How have you developed any of the eight habits of mind in this class?”

We most immediately bring these habits to mind in our work with student writers. But again, part of the utility of these terms is their malleability, their applicability to the wide range of learning tasks our students will engage with, inside and outside the four walls of the college classroom. As we browse through recent publication lists of scholarly presses and scroll through Insidehighered.com, Chronicle.com, and Twitter and Facebook feeds, we see a clear thread woven into the contemporary fabric of US higher education: increased emphasis on large-scale assessment spurred by external, sometimes not-for-profit organizations. For example, Michael’s university has just partnered for three years with the John Gardner Institute to overhaul four general education courses. As Linda Adler-Kassner eloquently said in her 2017 keynote address at the Conference for College Composition and Communication, the largest annual gathering for college writing teachers and administrators, these organizations often privilege big data sets and predictive analytics to drive systematic curricular changes.

As we read about these changes and even participate in them ourselves, we are appreciative of the perspective afforded by big data and can understand the move toward predictive analytics. But we are also thankful for the perspective that comes with advocating for these eight habits of mind. Sure, they are hard-to-quantify, hard-to-point-to survey findings on flexibility. But taken alongside these large portraits of student learning, the habits of mind help us see a more detailed portrait of the cognitive development of our students, the learners with whom we labor.


J. Michael Rifenburg is associate professor and director of first-year composition at the University of North Georgia, where he also serves as Faculty Fellow for Scholarly Writing within the Center for Teaching, Learning, and Leadership. His work has appeared in Composition Forum, Across the Disciplines, Teaching English in the Two-Year College, and The Writing Center Journal, and he is the author of The Embodied Playbook. With Duane Roen and Patricia Portanova, Rifenburg is the coeditor of Contemporary Perspectives on Cognition and Writing.

Duane Roen is professor of English at Arizona State University, where he serves as Dean of the College of Integrative Sciences and Arts, Dean of University College, and Vice Provost. He has written widely about writing instruction, writing across the curriculum, writing program administration, and academics as public intellectuals. His current projects focus on applications of the Framework for Success in Postsecondary Writing and on family history writing.

Blog posts on this site are prepared by the authors indicated in the individual blog post byline. Any opinions expressed in these posts are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the University Press of Colorado.