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Collaborative Writing

Collaborative writing assignments transform the usually solitary work of writing and editing college papers into a group endeavor. Instructors value such assignments because of their real-world relevance. After all, in most workplaces writing is typically produced by a team or goes through multiple hands for revising. Even in academia we often collaborate on research and co-author journal articles with colleagues.  Giving students the opportunities to practice writing and editing 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. It can be difficult to assess each student’s contribution to the final product, making assigning grades problematic. While group projects also mean fewer papers to grade, planning the assignment and meeting with students to discuss their progress or settle problems can be time-consuming. Likewise incorporating interim deadlines into the project, such as requiring students to submit drafts or outlines, is essential to the students’ learning and crucial to warding off potential problems. Such additional steps, though, usually mean more work for instructors.

Instructors also need to be certain that students understand when collaborative work is appropriate and when “collaboration” constitutes academic dishonesty. (W course instructors should note that in a W course collaborative writing can account for no more than 30% of the portion of a student’s final grade based on writing quality.)

What is collaborative writing?

“Collaborative writing” describes a full-length writing assignment completed in pairs or small groups. Here are points to keep in mind when assigning collaborative writing:

Pick a Task

When choosing an assignment, teachers who encourage collaborative work suggest that 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.

Choose Teams

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.

Spell Out Expectations

Make sure requirements for the assignment are put in writing; students will want to refer back to their assignment sheet periodically. Consider setting interim deadlines for drafts or parts of the project. Talk with students about the need to accommodate the schedules of all group members and remind them that delays in group work are almost inevitable and should be factored into their timeline.

Anticipate Trouble

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? 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 process for handling grievances is a good lesson in how to help a group function effectively.

Consider 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.

Use Technology

Encourage students to look for ways to let technology simplify their work, such as communicating via e-mail rather than in face-to-face meetings or using software to help present their final product. Conversely, ask them to think about how technology might limit them. For instance, are online discussions as useful as those conducted in person?

A good tool for collaborative writing is available at writerly.com at no cost.

Additional Resources

Assigning Collaborative Writing: Tips for Teachers by Syracuse University Professor Rebecca Moore Howard gives insight into the possibilities and pitfalls of group work.

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

Collaborative Writing Group Processes, a handout for students