The Four Keys to College and Career Readiness

“The new measure of a sufficiently prepared student is one who has knowledge and skills to keep learning beyond secondary school, first in formal settings and then in the workplace throughout their careers, so that they are capable of adapting to unpredictable changes and new economic conditions and opportunities.”


Dr. Conley’s Four Keys to College and Career Readiness model incorporates over a decade of research on what it takes to succeed in college and career. This research includes:

  • the development of a proficiency-based college admissions system developed for the Oregon University System,
  • a national study on college readiness standards sponsored by the Association of American Universities,
  • multiple analyses of entry-level college courses sponsored by the College Board and others,
  • college and career readiness standards developed under the sponsorship of the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board and subsequent studies of their validity relative to college and careers,
  • a study of career preparation programs sponsored by the National Assessment Governing Board,
  • and two major studies sponsored by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation on the alignment of the Common Core State Standards to college and career readiness.

According to the model, students are ready for college and careers to the degree to which they have mastered elements in all four keys: Think, Know, Act, and Go.


Students need to do more than retain or apply information; they have to process and manipulate it, assemble and reassemble it, examine it, question it, look for patterns in it, organize it, and present it. They need intentional patterns of thinking to draw on as they complete work after high school.

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Without strategies for how to proceed when they encounter a problem, ineffective learners repeat the same mistakes, not because they are not cognitively capable of learning but because they do not know what to do next or how to approach the task from another direction. Based on Dr. Conley and EPIC’s analysis of college course syllabi, assignments, and feedback from instructors, we identified five key cognitive strategies representing these intentional patterns of thinking:

Problem formulation: students demonstrate clarity about the nature of the problem, identify potential outcomes, and develop strategies for exploring all components of the problem.

Research: students explore a full range of available resources and collection techniques or generate original data. They also make judgments about the sources of information or quality of the data, and determine the usefulness of the information or data collected.

Interpretation: students identify and consider the most relevant information or findings. In order to make connections and draw conclusions, they need to use structures and strategies that contribute to the framework for communicating a solution. Reflecting on the quality of the conclusions drawn is an important part of this strategy.

Communication: students organize information and insights into a structured line of reasoning and construct a coherent and complete final version through a process that includes drafting, incorporating feedback, reflecting, and revising.

Precision and accuracy: students apply this strategy throughout the entire process. They maintain precision and accuracy during all stages of the process by determining and using language, terms, expressions, rules, terminology, and conventions appropriate to the subject area and problem.


Students need strong foundational knowledge in core academic subjects, and they also need to have an understanding of the structure of knowledge (the big ideas and how those ideas frame the study of the subject). However, it is not enough to have students learn high-quality content. They need to understand that success at learning content is a function of effort much more than aptitude.

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Structure of Knowledge

The brain organizes and retains bits of information into structures – what psychologists call schema. Without a structure, it’s difficult to retain key terms. Without the terms and terminology, it’s tough to do much with the big ideas. When the brain has the overarching structures in place and has mastered key terms and terminology, it can manage factual information much more efficiently and effectively.

Effort-Based Approach

Learners who believe success is aptitude-based think in terms of being “good at” or “just not good at” a subject. These students believe they have little control over their success or failure. On the other hand, students who adopt an effort-based approach to learning know that their behavior and the decisions they make have value. They understand that learning is not necessarily easy for anyone and that the difference in most cases is the time, energy, and learning strategies devoted to understanding a subject area.

To summarize, students need to learn key content knowledge effectively and efficiently by

• organizing the content well;

• identifying key ideas;

• believing that effort has value in the learning process; and

• regarding the content as worth learning.


Students need skills and techniques to take ownership and successfully manage their learning in educational and career opportunities after high school. In the absence of these critically important skills, students remain dependent learners who struggle when expected to work independently because they lack the needed tool kits.

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Students can gain expertise through sustained application and practice of key learning skills and techniques when they are integrated into regular instruction on an ongoing and sustained basis. No single factor may be more important to student success than the degree to which students take ownership of their learning and are allowed to do so. At the heart of student ownership of learning is a complex of intersecting skills and dispositions including the following:

• Goal setting

• Persistence

• Self-awareness

• Motivation

• Help seeking

• Progress monitoring

• Self-efficacy

In addition to assuming ownership of learning, students need a set of techniques to succeed in challenging and demanding learning situations. Some key techniques identified through Dr. Conley’s research include:

• Time management

• Study skills

• Test taking

• Note taking

• Memorization

• Strategic reading

• Collaborative learning

• Technological proficiency


Students preparing for a career or to further their education beyond high school must navigate numerous potential pitfalls if they wish to make a successful transition. They must cope with issues ranging from correctly submitting postsecondary applications to knowing when to seek help or advocate for their best interests.

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There are a wide range of issues and changes they must make as they undertake one of the most significant life transitions they will ever face. These issues include:

Contextual issues: students need to understand their motivations and options for educational programs after high school. This includes knowing the types of programs they want to attend and why they are a good match for them; knowing what it takes to qualify for the programs they are most interested in; identifying back-up options if their first choice does not work out; and having a sense of the probability that they are prepared to succeed in their program of choice.

Procedural issues: students must be able to address the “how to” of the admissions process. Applying to institutions is not easy, often requiring multiple steps. Navigating through the steps in a timely manner is crucial to submitting a viable application.

Financial issues: students and their parents must be aware of the actual costs and the options available to cover identified costs for their desired choice of programs. This requires much more than attending a single financial aid night where the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) is explained.

Cultural issues: students need to understand the differences between the cultural norms in high school and postsecondary programs. They should be ready to be more independent, self-reliant learners, which includes self-monitoring their coursework and understanding why they are taking a particular course or are enrolled in a program.

Personal issues: students should be able to advocate for themselves in complex environments and be prepared to pursue their interests assertively with a range of adults in positions of authority, including professors and instructors, financial aid officers, academic advisors, etc. They should learn to effectively challenge a decision that affects them negatively.

The Four Keys in Epic School Partnerships

Building off of Dr. Conley’s model, Epic School Partnerships provides workshops and diagnostic services to help schools embed the Four Keys throughout their school culture and empower all students to become lifelong learners. Click here to learn more about how Epic School Partnerships utilizes the Four Keys.

About Dr. David Conley

Dr. David Conley


In the late 1960s, after spending two years in a community college transfer program, Dr. David Conley was accepted at the University of California, Berkeley. He graduated from Berkeley with a deep commitment to education, which he viewed as the engine and vehicle by which society can address issues of social injustice. His driving goal became empowering people to fulfill their potential in a society that treats them with dignity and respect. Dr. Conley spent seven years cofounding, codirecting, teaching at, and administering two public alternative schools where he engaged in the radical redesign and rethinking of education. Here he discovered that each student in these schools (most of whom had been previously categorized as failures) had a talent or interest that was not immediately apparent but could serve as a way for them to own their learning and succeed after high school.

Dr. Conley has continued his commitment to education with 20 years in the public education system as a teacher, building-level and central office administrator, and state education department executive. He received his master’s and doctoral degrees from the University of Colorado, Boulder, before joining the University of Oregon faculty in 1989, where his ongoing research has focused on reshaping the relationship between high schools and colleges. In 2002, he founded EPIC to continue his passionate commitment to bridging the divide between educational systems, enabling more students to be ready for successful learning beyond high school. In October 2014, after more than 45 years as a full-time educational leader occupying multiple roles, Dr. Conley reduced his appointment at the UO and retired from EPIC in order to devote more time to innovative design work through his consulting company, EdImagine. Dr. Conley continues to work as a consultant with EPIC, focusing on strategy development and special projects.

Publications About the Four Keys