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What College Students Need to Succeed

Research identifies three necessary reading components.

By Joseph P. Magliano and Melissa Ray

In September, we wrote a blog article asking whether your kids are ready for college reading. In that article we focused on what is expected of students when they reach college.

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We emphasized that being a successful college reader involves learning how to read to accomplish a variety of goals, which can be very different across classes. For example, the reasons for reading in a history class can be very different from a biology class.

But what makes some readers more college ready than others? Answering this question is essential for learning how to help students become better readers before and during college, and it is at the center of our research efforts.

We have identified three components that are important for college reading and have the potential to determine students’ success: foundational skills, metacognitive skills, and motivation.

Component 1: Foundational Skills

Foundational skills include the mechanics of reading, which are initially learned between first and third grade. For example, you need to be able to identify the sounds and ultimately words that the squiggling lines on a paper represent.

By the time kids make it to middle school, many (but unfortunately not all) have learned these skills. If you don’t know how to read, you can’t comprehend what you read in college.

This brings us to the next important foundational skill: comprehension. Researchers who study reading generally believe that comprehension rests on building a durable memory for what is read (McNamara & Magliano, 2009). Building a durable memory means understanding how important ideas in a text are related to one another and what you already know about the topic.

For example, let’s say a student is reading a text that compares and contrasts different perspectives of F.D.R.’s New Deal. Students with good comprehension of the text will be able to explain the major claims made for each position, why they were made, and the contrastive relationship between them.

Component 2: Metacognitive Skills

Metacognition refers to being aware of how well you are doing on a task and knowing what to do if you aren’t accomplishing your goal.

Have you ever found yourself reading something, and your mind starts wandering? Your eyes are still moving across the page and doing some of the mechanics of reading, but you don’t really comprehend what you just read. We all have faced this situation at one time or another, but effective students do things to fix the problem, such as rereading sections of the text where they were mind-wandering. This strategic behavior is an example of a metacognitive skill.

There is a considerable amount of research on metacognition and its role in helping students succeed (Hacker, Dunlosky , & Graesser, 2009). Believe it or not, students tend to be really poor at predicting how well they comprehend text (e.g Maki Shields, Wheeler, & Zacchilli, 2005), with the tendency to be overconfident.

Effective students tend to be more cautious in their evaluations of their understanding (Graesser, Person, & Magliano, 1995). Moreover, when they don’t understand what they have read, they reach into a “tool kit” of strategies that can be used to fix the problems, such as rereading a section of text, summarizing a section of text, or actively working to connect it to familiar and more understandable concepts.

Component 3: Motivation

Not every student is motivated to do what it takes to succeed in school, much less when they read for school. Motivation to read has been widely studied (Schiefele, Schaffner, Möller, & Wigfield, 2012), as you might imagine.

The motivation recipe is complex (Scheiefele, et al., 2012). But we know its ingredients involve:

  • a sense of valuing the basic act of reading,
  • a belief that you have the skills to succeed when you read for purpose,
  • and a sense of caring about doing well.

That sense of caring can be for external reasons (getting good grades) or internal reasons (personal standards). We are still trying to learn exactly how the complex aspects of motivation help students thrive.

Applying the Components

So, we see a trifecta of factors that help students be successful readers. They have to possess the foundational skills to comprehend text. They have to be able to evaluate whether they are comprehending the text and know what to do if they aren’t. Finally, they have to be motivated to succeed.

To date, there is no direct evidence for exactly how the three specified components work together to support student success. In fact, we have recently received funding from the Institute of Education Sciences, an arm of the U.S. Department of Education, to test just how important these factors are for students to succeed in college.

We hope this research will help educators learn how to better equip students with the necessary foundational, metacognitive, and motivational skills. And, for the sake of generations to come, we need to get the “recipe for success” just right.

Joe Magliano is a Presidential Research Professor in the Department of Psychology at Northern Illinois University. He teaches courses about cognitive psychology and the psychology of language. His research focuses on how we understand narratives across different media (text, film, graphic narratives) and how we can help struggling readers become more effective in academic reading.

Melissa Ray is a research scientist at Northern Illinois University and in the Center for the Interdisciplinary Study of Language and Literacy. Her research interests include individual differences in reading comprehension and the relationship between text structure and comprehension. Ray is a former community college instructor, and has previously taught developmental reading, writing, and English as a second language.


Graesser, A. C., Person, N. K., & Magliano, J. P. (1995). Collaborative dialogue patterns in naturalistic one-to-one tutoring. Applied Cognitive Psychology, 9, 495-522.

Hacker, D. J. Dunlosky, J. & Graesser, A. C(Eds.) (2009). Handbook of Metacognition in Eduation. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum and Associates.

Maki, R. H., Sheilds, M., Wheeler, A. E., Zacchilli, J L. (2005). Journal of Educational Psychology, 94, 723-731.

Schiefele, U., Schaffner, E., Moller, J., & Wigfield, A. (2012). Dimensions of reading motivation and their relation to reading behavior and competence. Reading Research Quarterly, 47, 427-463.