Fostering Non-Cognitive Skills and Academic Habits in the Accelerated Composition Classroom

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Those of us who were schooled in the ideas developed by the Accelerated Learning Program pioneered by Peter Adams, and the California Acceleration Project, co-founded by Katie Hern and Myra Snell, learned very early on that fostering non-cognitive skills and academic habits is crucial to our students’ success. In Santa Barbara City College’s Express to Success (ESP) program, we emphasized the importance of slowing down and rethinking our classes from the ground up and, most importantly, seeing them through our students’ eyes.

Essentially, that means taking nothing for granted. We should not, for instance, assume that students in an accelerated composition course automatically read the syllabus every week, or, indeed, ever read it again after we introduce it on the first day of class. It’s our responsibility to draw their attention back to it throughout the semester, emphasizing assignments that are especially important and alerting students to when they will be held accountable for completing those assignments.

Obviously, every instructor enters the real or virtual accelerated classroom with a slightly different set of goals, but here are five non-cognitive skills and academic habits that I’d like my students to depart with by the end of the semester:

Feel comfortable asking for help. There is perhaps no more important habit for student success than knowing you need help and going out and getting it. Part of this process is learning whom to ask, of course, but until students realize that it’s okay to feel at sea, they cannot course-correct. Low stakes assignments that require students to seek help—interviewing a counselor or a financial aid officer, for example—are especially valuable early in the semester, so that asking for help feels like part of going to college.

Identify at least one person besides the instructor who is a reliable source of information. Naturally, I’d like to be the first person a student contacts with a question about the class, but sometimes students feel a question isn’t important enough to bother the professor, or they simply would rather connect with someone else. A tutor is certainly valuable in these circumstances, but a classmate—someone who knows what’s going on and won’t judge a peer—is even better. It’s here that our emphasis on building community pays off. And there are other options, too. An especially shy student in an asynchronous online class admitted to me during a conference that she was sharing our course materials with an older sibling, who had already graduated from college. When she couldn’t quite figure something out, she turned to her big brother for advice.

Plan ahead. The pandemic has made many instructors more flexible with deadlines, and this attitude may well hang around for a while. However, as we transition back to more traditional classroom settings, deadlines may firm up once again. Whatever an instructor’s policies may be, it’s disconcerting how often students seem to be floating through the semester, unaware of what’s about to be due, or what can no longer be turned in. I want my students never to feel surprised by an assignment. Phone fanatics may rely on their digital calendars, although I’ve had many students tell me there’s no reminder quite as insistent as a circled date on a physical calendar hanging above a desk.

Insist on your right to be educated. Sometimes the people who love a student the most will unwittingly throw up the most challenges. A working parent needs babysitting, for instance, and wonders how important it could be to miss just one class, or one test, or one essay? Other folks may not have students’ best interests in mind—the employer who needs a shift covered, or the friend who has deemed college a waste of time. That first step of enrolling in college is a huge one, but students need to remember that there are many more steps to come, and they are justified in taking each and every one of them.

Take nothing for granted. Just as I move through the semester feeling that I cannot remind my students too many times about what to do, how to do it, and when it is due—let’s call it what it is: intrusive!—I want them to feel that there’s always something they should be checking on. Know what’s expected of you and what you can expect from others, I tell them. Be alert, be alive, be strong—and nothing can stop you.