Collaborative writing projects are a very great good, and I will continue to assign them.
Collaborative writing projects are problematic and I consider cutting them from my course plans every semester.
From Kenneth Bruffee to Ira Shor, pedagogical theorists have maintained not only the value of student collaboration, but the necessity of it. Knowledge is socially constructed, they argue, thus the more we instructors tailor our classroom environment to mirror this reality, the better learners our students will be. Not only that, but collaborative writing in particular is common in the workplace—that magical land to which we abstractly point students—and as Elizabeth Wardle argues, too often First Year Composition writing assignments become their own, “school-bound” genres that bear no resemblance whatsoever to writing our students will be called upon to compose elsewhere. We should, then, view collaborative writing assignments as key instructional opportunities for our students, necessary for their growth as learners and for their preparation for the “real world” of employers and co-workers.
But, translating these arguments into productive pedagogy is something else to be reckoned with: the elusive theory-meets-practice with which we instructors hunt on a daily basis. Hepzibah Roskelly wrote this excellent book outlining strategies for productive group work—both in a single class period and over a prolonged project. As my blog title indicates, I have both championed and marginalized collaborative writing projects in my FYC courses—but I always assign them. Here’s what’s worked well, and not-so-well, over the past few years.
Daily (or in-class) collaborative projects
What doesn’t work:
Instructors are often frustrated about low levels of student engagement or participation in group work. It’s important to note that in-class group work is not a silver bullet to shoot into any given situation—if it is not thoughtfully scaffolding with the broader goals of the project and the course, then it will likely feel like “busy work” to students, and they will react accordingly. Just putting students in groups of 3-4 doesn’t automatically signal collaboration, either. Work must be done throughout the course to foster an environment of inquiry and collaborative meaning making in all interactions—student-to-professor (utilizing wait time, setting a precedent for question-asking and response and disagreement) as well as student-to-student (attending to introverts as well as extroverts, asking students to answer other students’ questions).
Design—I try to design for the interactions I want to foster, asking myself: do you want students mostly talking to each other? Then their task should explicitly tell them to do that, using words like “discuss,” “debate,” and “talk through.” Do you want them writing together? There should be clear guidelines about what you want produced. Will they present later? Publish this somewhere? Are they solving a problem? Analyzing an argument? Going through a whole-class discussion is something I try to give equal attention to, along with small group analysis (3-4 people), station activities (that have students moving around to different “stations” each their own tasks), or one larger task (like working on close reading of a long, scholarly article) that is divided among small groups. For example, to prep students for genre analysis, I will break them into teams of 3-4 people, and assign each group a different genre (I like to use digital genres that are easy to digest in a relatively short amount of time—like memes, celebrity tweets, reddit forums, or blogs) to analyze together. The groups must find (via computer or smartphone) samples of the genre, and run through the genre analysis prompts in box 2.1 on pages 93-94 of The Wayne Writer.
Deliverables—requiring something “to show for” their work as a group is an important motivational factor for students. Usually, I find it is best to have something demonstrable due at the end of the work period. It might be notes, a collaborative composition, or a blog post (if we’re working in a computer classroom). It might also be contributing to a whole-class list on the board, or delivering informal presentations of the results to the whole class. For example, with the in-class group genre analysis described above, each group is responsible for giving a brief presentation to the rest of the class on their findings, as well as turning in their list of genre conventions to me before leaving class. Sometimes, I’ll even turn it into a competition to keep things spicy.
Bigger collaborative projects:
What doesn’t work:
In bigger collaborative projects, the main tension is usually on the part of our best students. A group responsible for a single piece of writing is bound to have one or two people who—either willingly or unwillingly—take charge and do the majority of the work, allowing the rest of the group to ride along in their wake. Ameliorating this tension is key to group projects that are productive and meaningful for everyone.
Component parts—Roskelly’s book has lots of helpful tips, but perhaps the most valuable is the idea of the weekly folder. Over the course of a several-week-long project, she has each group turn in a folder of work representing their accomplishments for the week. Each member of the group must complete one of several tasks and be responsible to contribute part of the folder work. For example, I have usually set up these group folders during a multi-step research project. Students are grouped with others who have chosen similar research topics, so that they can help with brainstorming, share sources and work on a collaborative visual argument. There are required components for the folder each week, such as discussion notes, research memos, sketches for visual compositions, and reflections; something for everyone. Each week, students must choose which role they are to play in their group, rotating until everyone has performed each role at least once.
Truly “collaborative” writing tasks—breaking tasks down so that everyone has a piece they are responsible for is one way to get around the group-work tension, but what about when you want students to work together to compose a single text? I have tried different strategies on this one, but perhaps the best received is the group participation rubric. I have students in a group grade their fellow members on participation and contribution to the group. The average of all their peers’ grades becomes each member’s participation grade for the project. I also advocate (and sometimes assign) use of Google docs. In this way, I can see the editing history of a given text, and also who did what to it. Students seem to really appreciate that I can see their writing process and “what they’ve done” along the way.
There is no perfect system for collaborative writing projects—you can’t please everyone. But, with these strategies, I have been able to comfortably integrate collaborative composing and group work into my FYC classes. Maybe you can, too.
Nicole Varty is a PhD candidate in Rhetoric and Composition as well as a Lecturer in the English Department at Wayne State University. She teaches First Year Composition and Basic Writing, and has played major roles in GTA mentoring and WSU’s Summer Bridge program.