Collaborative Assignments

Collaborative writing or speaking assignments are assumed to be full-length assignments completed in pairs or small groups. Collaborative assignments transform the usually solitary work of writing, editing, and public speaking into a group endeavor. Instructors value such assignments because of their real-world relevance. After all, in many workplaces work is produced by a team or goes through multiple hands for feedback and revision. Giving students the opportunities to practice writing, editing, and presenting with others is a prudent step in preparing them for the world after graduation. Collaborative assignments can significantly enhance student learning in other ways as well; specifically, they:

  • allow students to learn from each other

  • expose students to points of view besides their own

  • foster discussion and debate

  • open students' eyes to how their work compared to that of their peers, giving them a better sense of their own strengths and weaknesses as writers and thinkers

  • encourage students to consider their audience, an important aspect of learning to write effectively and yet a component missing in many traditional assignments

  • teach students to negotiate the issues inherent in any collaborative venture.

But collaborative work presents unique issues for an instructor. Asking students to write or present in a group can have disastrous consequences if you don’t build in some group processes that will guide their interactions and define their roles. 
Furthermore, it can be difficult to assess each student's contribution to the final product, making assigning grades problematic. Assigning collaborative work does not necessarily save time. While group projects result in fewer papers or presentations to grade, planning the assignment and meeting with students to discuss their progress or settle problems can be time-consuming.  Instructors also need to be certain that students understand when collaborative work is appropriate and when "collaboration" constitutes academic dishonesty. (W and C course instructors should note that in a W or C course collaborative writing can account for no more than 30% of the portion of a student's final grade based on writing quality.)

If you decide to use a collaborative assignment, the first step is to decide on the learning outcomes related to collaboration. For example, if you want each student to get writing practice, you’ll need to ensure that each does some writing; if you are more interested in them learning to work harmoniously together, you can assign roles based on competence or preference.
 

Here are key points to keep in mind when assigning collaborative writing:

Pick a Task

It's best for instructors to select a task that would be difficult for students to accomplish alone, thus making group work a natural choice.  Examples of such projects include a marketing plan for a new business venture or an employee manual.

Group Composition

Decide whether you'll assign work groups, let students choose their own, or make the selection randomly. There are advantages and disadvantages to each option, something you might want to discuss with your class. Depending on your preferences, the size of the class, your knowledge of your students, and the outcomes you wish to pursue, you'll need to decide how many students for each group and how to form the groups. The number of students will depend on the task, but four to seven is usually a good number; if voting will be done frequently, an odd number is preferable. You can also determine the number needed for each group by deciding on the roles students might play, determined by the functions necessary to complete a task you've assigned.
 
The list of roles below is adapted from a University Writing Center handout you can share with students (Group Writing Projects).
 

Project Manager: the main organizer.  This person makes sure everyone completes the work and stays on track throughout the project. If the group has to report back to an authority, the project manager speaks for the group. The project manager sets agendas and chairs group meetings and brainstorming sessions.

Referee: during group meetings, the one who ensure that all ideas are heard and considered. He or she can call for votes on ideas or settle disputes that can’t be resolved through voting or negotiation. The referee should be fair and should consider everyone’s point of view.

Recorder: the one who keeps track of the ideas and planned actions (like taking minutes at a meeting). The recorder makes any necessary notes on a master draft, if one has been produced. If students are practicing a presentation, this person can literally tape it.

Writer(s): the writer or writing team who produces the first draft and turns it over to the editor.

Editor: the one who collects all the drafts and produces a “fair” or clean copy, making it as coherent and correct as possible. The editor then returns the fair copy to all members for review and further discussion as needed. If there is basic agreement, the editor can incorporate all suggestions that work well into the draft. If there are major disagreements, the process of discussion and negotiation begins again.

When the document is written, whether it is presentation outline with slides or a paper, the editor (or the assistant editor) produces a near final draft. Every group member should proofread a copy of this draft for errors and inconsistencies. A good editor looks at spelling, grammar, punctuation, format, documentation, and accuracy. Once everyone on the team has reviewed the document, the editor collects the drafts and makes the final call on which corrections to accept.

Assistant Editor: the one who works under the direction of the editor to help complete the editorial tasks.

Reviewer: the one who critiques presentations during practice. The reviewer can use a version of the UWC's Presentation Checklist.

Spell Out Expectations

Make sure requirements for the assignment are put in writing; students will want to refer back to their assignment sheet periodically. Talk with students about the need to accommodate the schedules of all group members. Make sure students are clear about the need for group meetings in a safe place and at a reasonable time.

Acknowledge that group work comes with its own set of hazards. Discuss with students how to handle problems. What will they do with a student who fails to complete tasks? How should individuals report to others when they cannot fulfill their duties, and who will take up the slack? How will meetings proceed? How will individuals get a turn to speak, and who will make decisions? 
What should they do if they can't reach a consensus on a key point? What if one student dominates the process? How can students get help if their group seems to be marginalizing them because of race, gender, or other factors?

Setting up a set of ground rules for handling grievances and presenting problems is a good lesson in how to help a group function effectively. The ground rules guide group behavior and establish standards for accountability. You can set them for the group or have them create their own rules.  You might provide some class time for meetings, especially for the crucial first meeting.

The First Meeting

The first group meeting is crucial. Give students an opportunity to exchange contact information and get to know one another. If you have not designated roles, at least define roles for them and ask them to make early decisions about who will contribute what. It never hurts for them to make a written record of any agreements.

If you have not set ground rules already, ask them to create and agree upon rules. If you have, go over the rules with them to ensure they really understand them.

Have them set up a schedule that breaks their larger task into sub-tasks with deadlines and responsible parties assigned. Remind them that delays in group work are almost inevitable and should be factored into their timeline, and that they should also build in time for feedback and revision. They're more likely to meet if they have set up a schedule in advance.

Brainstorming Techniques

Students may need to learn about good techniques for brainstorming so that everyone in the group is heard. They may need to be reminded that, in the early stages, brainstorming should be done in an open and accepting atmosphere and, if possible, a comfortable environment, so that even seemingly infeasible ideas can be considered. Someone needs to lead the brainstorming session, and someone else needs to record ideas; having a big white board or post-it is ideal. 

The group manager, or whoever leads the session, needs to be specific about the task and the goal and, if necessary, provide the group with background information. The leader also should be sure to listen attentively, repeating back ideas and helping the recorder to capture them, and making sure the group follows ground rules, for example, not interrupting or raising a hand to be recognized.

Assessment

Students need to know how they'll be graded. Will the entire group receive the same grade? Will group members have any input, such as letting the instructor know who they feel contributed the most or least to the final product? Many students fear that the poor performance of other team members will unfairly affect their grade.

Whatever you decide, it's important to check on group progress periodically. Some instructors require self or peer assessment at regular intervals during the life of the project to help regulate participation. You can also keep tabs on the group at regular intervals. Decide if you will meet with groups as they work on their projects. You can ask for a written or oral progress report, meet with the whole group in a conference, or meet with an individual who represents the group. Doing so gives you an opportunity to provide feedback as well as to head off any complications in group processes and communication. Be sure to ask for a report after the first meeting that sets out the group’s roles, ground rules, and schedule.

 

Additional Resources

In addition to the resources listed below, students can book University Writing Center appointments for group projects. It is not required that all members of the group be present, but it is a good way for the group to move forward if they are having difficulty with writing or need to practice their presentation.

Assigning and Managing Collaborative Writing Projects, Sweetland Center for Writing, University of Michigan
 

Managing Group Writing Projects: Workshop

Group Writing Projects: Handout

MindTools.com provides some helpful background on group brainstorming.

Why Consider Collaborative Assignments? from Colorado State University explores the usefulness of group work.