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Collaborative Writing and Learning in the College Classroom

To begin, a few key terms need definition.  The broadest of these, collaborative learning, is a term that generally suggests more than brief in-class group activities. According to Kenneth Bruffee’s seminal book, Collaborative Learning: Higher Education, Interdependence, and the Authority of Knowledge (1993), collaborative learning asks students to “work on focused but open-ended tasks... in small consensus groups,” to “construct knowledge” in a more real-world and mature way, and “learn the craft of interdependence” (1). Similarly, scholar Harvey Wiener emphasizes the value of the “group's effort to reach consensus by their own authority” (240). These definitions suggest that collaborative learning advocates student-centered education, in that it offers space for students to cooperate and problem-solve without the teacher's direct guidance.  In this article, I use the terms “collaborative learning,” or “collaboration,” to refer to a specific pedagogy: an intentional use of teams or small groups to stimulate critical thinking, peer scaffolding or teaching, and communicating in a group setting in the classroom.  Collaborative writing is a facet of collaborative learning and can describe activities with a range of styles and stakes; while writing is not always a part of collaboration, it is the focus here. 

As the wide range of scholarship shows, there are endless variations on how to incorporate collaborative writing in order to encourage critical thinking, rhetorical awareness, peer scaffolding, and independence in both short, in-class activities, and longer group projects.  Some ideas for short activities include:

  • Think-pair-share: Students can think or write for a moment in response to a critical thinking question, discuss their answer with a partner, and then debrief as a large group (Millis and Cottell 99-100).  While the strategy is often used with content-based learning, this form of collaboration can be applied to writing by simply directing the question toward a given assignment or other element of the class. 
  • Progressive writing: Students write for a few moments in response to a prompt, and then pass the paper to another student, who reads what is written and continues writing. This low-stakes writing activity help students to respond and adjust to other writers’ ideas (Barkley, Cross, and Major 245), and so helps build the notion of writing as a social act, with a specific context and audience. 
  • Peer review: Feedback as a form of collaborative writing that can be used both in class and as an outside assignment.  (See this article for more ideas about peer review.)

In longer writing assignments, collaboration may be employed either in group projects such as the traditional long report, in which the team will produce one collective document, or in individual projects where students guide each other during certain stages of individually written assignments. Any assignment should envision a specific audience, which is valuably emphasized in the collaborative aspect of the project, and may attempt to simulate a “real world” situation as much as possible in order to emphasize the importance of the writer’s rhetorical situation in constructing the project.  While a number of elements go into planning and carrying out a successful long-term collaboration, I’ll highlight here a few of the key considerations in beginning and wrapping up an extended project.

As the class begins any writing assignment, a key element of student and project success is sufficient preparation for the task.  In a group writing project, this should include some time dedicated to team building and developing “group cohesion” (Ede and Lunsford 123).  One possible icebreaker is for students to discuss group members’ Meyers-Briggs types.  After completing a free online version of the indicator at home, students can talk about what their MBTI might mean in terms of work style, communication, and role in the group.  Low-stakes writing activities, completed as a team before the project even begins, can also help students prepare for writing together and handling conflict resolution (Snyder).  This could include progressive writing, brainstorming, or collaborative development of a short in-class assignment.  Activities like these will help students write together, respond to each others’ ideas, and find ways to coordinate styles and content.

In order to best promote the benefits of collaborative writing and learning, the teacher needs to step back and allow for groups to come to some consensus and understanding on their own.  An instructor that joins groups freely in order to answer questions and have discussions with students actually reduces the collaborative efforts of the group, since all eyes are then turned back to the teacher rather than problem-solving for themselves (Weiner 243).   This shift in power, from a teacher-centered to a student-centered classroom, is a challenge for many educators, and so may require a conscious effort.  Nevertheless, the expectations and guidelines should be clear from the beginning, and so even as teachers resist guiding students through each stage, they should create specific assignment sheets and give feedback on group or individual drafts, so that students can gauge their performance. 

Students also need an opportunity for peer evaluation of their performance as a group member throughout the process.  Incorporating some peer appraisal throughout encourages communication and relieves stifled conflict, as well as offering an opportunity for the evaluated student to improve before the end of the project. Students should practice using concrete details in any evaluation, rather than vague accusation; this is a chance to practice quantifying, specifying, and clarifying through concise and direct language.

Some instructors base students’ final grades on the group product as a whole and these peer evaluations, while others include individual performance on assigned sections in grades as well.  Perhaps the best answer is a split one: how to grade depends on the level, goals, and subject of the class.  Students should be told in advance, however, how their evaluations of peers will be used: an appraisal is often shared with an employee (or peer) as feedback to guide improvement, while evaluations that will influence grades may be kept private to encourage candid evaluation and reduce backlash from group members.  Clarity about the audience for these documents will help students think carefully about the rhetorical situation of their work.

The techniques and approaches to collaborative writing are abundant, and new technologies and studies continue to influence how it is incorporated in the business and technical writing classroom.  For instance, students today may use Google Docs, Blackboard, or Dropbox to share documents and collaborate from across town; this aligns with the move in the professional world to coordinate digitally, and so serves as valuable skill-building for students.  Nevertheless, a well-designed activity or project in collaborative writing does more than prepare students for their future careers: it pushes them to challenge, communicate, and live up to others’ feedback, as well as emphasizing audience, consensus, and interdependence.


Works Cited

Barkley, Elizabeth, K. Patricia Cross, and Claire Howell Major.  Collaborative Learning Techniques: A Handbook for College Faculty.  San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2005.  Print.

Bruffee, Kenneth.  Collaborative Learning: Higher Education, Interdependence, and the Authority of Knowledge.  Baltimore: John Hopkins UP, 1993.  Print.

Ede, Lisa, and Andrea Lunsford.  Singular Texts/Plural Authors: Perspectives on Collaborative Writing.  Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois UP, 1990.  Print.

Millis, Barbara, and Philip Cottell.  “A Cooperative Learning Structure for Large Classes: Think-Pair-Share.”  Small Group Instruction in Higher Education: Lessons from the Past, Visions of the Future.  Eds. James L. Cooper, Pamela Robinson, and David Ball.  Stillwater, OK: New Forums, 2003.  Print.

Snyder, Lisa Gueldenzoph.  “Teaching Teams About Teamwork: Preparation, Practice, and Performance Review.” Business Communication Quarterly 72.1 (2009): 74-9.  Business Source Premier.  Web.  27 Oct. 2010.

Sutton, Mark.  “English 4090: Collaborative Writing at Work.”  Composition Studies 35.2 (2007): 101-15.  MLA International Bibliography.  Web.  27 Oct. 2010.

Weiner, Harvey.  “Collaborative Learning in the Classroom: A Guide to Evaluation.”  The Writing Teacher’s Sourcebook.  Eds. Gary Tate and Edward Corbett.  New York: Oxford UP, 1988.  238-47.  Print.


Sat, 06/04/2011

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