A collaborative writing project
Stacie Renfro Powers, Courtenay Dunn-Lewis, and Gordon Fraser
University of Connecticut Writing Center
The resources that follow include ideas, research, and worksheets to help instructors integrate collaborative writing projects (CWPs) into their curriculum. Some techniques will be more practical for larger projects or projects of extended length. Many of the class resources are available in Microsoft Word and are intended to be customized for to the specific needs of each project.
A. There are many ways to write collaboratively in the classroom.
In a practical sense, classroom collaboration can involve writing text together or separately, editing another’s work, peer reviewing in a face-to-face/virtual environment, or all (or none) of the above. It may involve running drafts by colleagues or having an editor piece together multiple contributions. Class assignments and deadlines may dictate some of this – or an instructor may simply let it happen organically.
While individual writing emerges from several iterations of brainstorming, organizing, writing, and refining, group writing multiplies these efforts. The process varies according to the group composition, experience, and constraints. This is confirmed in the literature, as no author advances a “best practice” for collaborative writing. In fact, as will be discussed below, almost all of the advice for collaborative writing centers on how to manage group workflow and dynamics.
B. Should a group project in the classroom reflect the “real world?”
Collaboration in the professional world is presented in a variety of scenarios – from a single author soliciting advice from colleagues to co-authored texts where input is equally shared. Some believe that it is important to model writing collaboration projects after the professional process (as a student might encounter them in their career). However, team writing in the professional context is not intended to be an educational experience. As Speck (2002) points out, “real world” work is not often evenly distributed. Professionals who are not able to contribute effectively may be dropped from a project with little fallout. These differences do not allow academic projects to maintain the style of those in the “real world.” The payoff of successful academic collaborative writing projects, however, should translate into better group skills when students do move into the working world.
The collaborative process in an academic setting is a valuable, predominantly educational, experience. Many students are still growing in their ability to write and work with the writing of others. Generating a coherent product from multiple student voices (and, at times, multiple academic disciplines) may be demanding. As Price and Warner (2005) write: “Our challenge is to find ways to help our students render the layers visible, so that we can offer them guidance as detailed and complex as their processes of composing warrant. This may mean letting go of values such as “coherence,” and inviting the potential benefits of mess.” It also means that the process becomes an integral part of the learning experience. In other words, challenging students to pursue a project – even in a manner that is not always smooth and does not always reflect the professional process – may allow them to become better at collaboration, writing, and other career-related skills.
C. Anticipating Obstacles is Important.
Research has shown that receiving personal satisfaction from group experiences is an important predictor of willingness to join other task groups, the ability to generate higher quality decisions, and increased commitment to those decisions (Hall, as cited in Bogert & Butt, 1990). However, while students are initially more concerned with the task than the group dynamics, successful completion of the task is not enough to leave them feeling satisfied with the outcome (Bogert & Butt, 1990). Embarking on a collaborative writing project in class requires an instructor’s awareness of the potential obstacles at play, their role in managing such obstacles, and strategies for prevention.
In an analysis of videotapes of group communication patterns, students encountered “the substantive, procedural, and relational problems experienced by many other problem solving groups” (Hirokawa & Gouran, as cited in Bogert & Butt, 1990). These issues included task-related problems that directly affect writing quality. These students experienced difficulty in testing ideas critically, in evaluating alternatives, and in achieving closure on important items. The tendency to introduce irrelevant discussion, failure to consider interpersonal relationships and authority relations, and outright conflict further compounded the bad experiences. The affected students were less likely to want to work in groups in the future.
Experienced instructors emphasize the importance of effective group communication as a foundation for successful collaborative writing experiences. While it is possible for most group projects to be successful even if there is no intervention, Mead (1994) estimates that about one in four groups will experience some kind of conflict that requires instructor mediation. Other techniques described below, such as monitoring students and ensuring proper group formation, can greatly improve the outcome of the group process.
1. Group Formation
There are several considerations at play as far as group membership is concerned. Some instructors have found that students do better when they are assigned to groups. This ensures diversity, which leads to less groupthink and more substantive discussions. For large projects that require a lot of out-of-class meeting time, students may want to identify peers with similar schedules, interests, or campus residences. Speck recommends giving the students a sign-up sheet and leaving the room for 15-20 minutes.
Once groups are formed, other strategies may be useful depending on the expectations of the project. It is usually useful to conduct some initial icebreaker tasks to allow group members to get to know one another. Another option is to have group members take a personality test, such as the Myers-Briggs Inventory, to help identify their strengths for their group members (Deans, 2003).
2. Preventative Organization
Instructors can take several preventative steps to optimize group effectiveness and reduce the potential for conflict. Some of these steps can be performed prior to assigning team roles. For example, it is often useful to establish a group’s consensus on its own operations (meeting times, grade goals, policies for differences of opinion). To prevent group discord, a group contract can be used to create a consensus on expectations.
Either before or after assigning roles, formulating a group proposal can help an instructor to evaluate whether teams are putting energy into useful projects or doomed endeavors. Such proposals may accompany a writing plan, which will help with the organization of the project and distribution of work. (Please see the next section for more information on assigning roles).
3. Assigning Roles
Issues of fairness can overshadow the learning process and can take up unplanned-for time. Assigning roles can facilitate communication processes and create comfortable conditions for constructive disagreement. You and/or the students may decide that it is preferable to rotate who is responsible for administrative roles (such as the meeting leader and note-taker) so that everyone has a chance to organize the process (Speck, 2002, p. 70).
It may be useful to consider roles in two categories: those concerned with accomplishing a task, and those concerned with maintaining group relations. Task roles may include initiators, information seekers/givers, opinion seekers/givers, clarifiers, elaborators, and summarizers (Speck, 2002, pp. 66-71). Group maintenance roles include encouragers, feeling expressers, compromisers, and gatekeepers. Before a big discussion, it is helpful to identify a devil’s advocate, or person who will challenge the group’s arguments and approaches in order to clarify them (p. 91).
For a short reading and group assignment on roles, see:
4. Dedicated Class Time.
Including a collaborative writing project in a curriculum brings up several issues for time management. Instructors must consider the schedules of students and their abilities to meet. In addition, instructors often raise concerns on finding the time to give feedback on the writing and the process itself. A combination of dedicated class time and instructor monitoring typically improves the quality of projects and reduces time concerns (please see the next section for more on monitoring).
Many resources recommend scheduling class time for group work and group conferences. This does result in less time for lecture and other classroom activities. However, this allows instructors to become more familiar with each group’s work when it is still in its formative stages. Instructors may also find that they can anticipate issues more readily and detect groups that are stalling. Instructors can then save a lot of the time that they would otherwise have spent reading and commenting on poor drafts.
5. Group Meetings and Monitoring.
Advocates of collaborative writing stress the need to intervene during the entire process. This includes monitoring during class time, establishing meeting requirements, and/or monitoring meetings themselves. Monitoring helps to confirm that the process is going smoothly, that each group is compatible, and that work is effective. Instructors may choose to meet with groups beginning in the first week. This allows instructors to answer questions, confirm roles, and clarify expectations (Kryder, 1991). Thereafter, requiring group or individual conferences throughout the project can help ensure continual progress.
To enhance the effectiveness of such activities, groups can supply a meeting plan prior to the meeting and supply a progress report after each meeting. A decision making guide, while advantageous for any decision a group is faced with, may also help resolve conflict.
Just as the process of collaborative writing can be an educational experience, so can the process of evaluation. You may want to allow students to modify evaluation questions and criteria. This may be useful as a learning tool, as it can help them to gain more perspective on the process. For example, Speck recommends letting students give input into how to weight the group evaluation criteria.
Books and Articles that can help start the conversation:
- Ronald, K. & Roskelly, H. (2002) Learning to Take it Personally: The Ethics of Collaborative Writing.* In D. H. Holdstein & D. Bleich (Eds.), Personal Effects: The Social Character of Scholarly Writing. Logan, Utah: State University Press.
- Bruffee, K. A. (1999). Collaborative Learning (Second ed.). Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press.
- Ede, L., and Andrea A. Lunsford. (Mar. 2001). Collaboration and Concepts of Authorship. PMLA, 116(2), 354-369.
- Hyman, D., & Lazaroff, B. (2007). With A Little Help From Our Friends: Collaboration and Student Knowledge-Making in the Composition Classroom. In F. Gaughan & P. H. Khost (Eds.), Collaboration(,) Literature(,) and Composition (pp. 127-145). Cresskill, New Jersey: Hampton Press, Inc.
- Price, M., & Warner, A. B. (Dec. 2005). What You See Is(Not) What You Get: Collaborative Composing in Visual Space. Across the Disciplines Retrieved Nov. 1, 2007, fromhttp://wac.colostate.edu/atd/visual/price_warner.cfm
- Reither, J. A., and Douglas Vipond. (Dec. 1989). Writing as Collaboration. College English, 51(8), 855-867.
- Spooner, M. & Yancey, K. (1998). A single good mind: Collaboration, cooperation, and the writing self. College Composition and Communication, 49(1), 45-62.
- Bogert, J. & Butt, D. (1990). Opportunities lost, challenges met: Understanding and applying group
dynamics in writing projects. Bulletin of the Association of Business Communication, 53(2), 51-58. Retrieved from ERIC database (EJ411597).
- Deans, T. (2003). Writing and Community Action: A Service-Learning Rhetoric with Readings. New York:
- Speck, B. W., Johnson, T. R., Dice, C. P., & Heaton, L. B. (1999). Collaborative Writing: An Annotated
Bibliography. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press.
- Speck, B. W. (2002). Facilitating Students’ Collaborative Writing. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
- Kryder, L. G. (1991). Project administration techniques for successful classroom collaborative writing.
Bulletin of the Association for Business Communication, 54(4), 65-66. Retrieved from ERIC database (EJ439195).
- Mead, D. G. (1994). Celebrating Dissensus in Collaboration: A Professional Writing Perspective. Paper
presented at the 45th Conference on College Composition and Communication in Nashville, TN. Retrieved from ERIC database (ED375427).
- University of Maryland Graduate School of Management and Technology. (nd). Tips for Collaborative Writing. Retrieved online at http://www.umuc.edu/departments/omde/orientation/ collaborativewriting.pdf