Many disciplines and professions require extensive collaboration for research and communication; indeed, for many fields, group writing and presentations are more common than individual work. Given their academic and real-world importance, team-based writing projects are excellent opportunities to practice and develop collaborative skills. However, as quite a few of us—and our students—can attest, “group work” can be a source of frustration due to unclear parameters, unequal distribution of work, and uncertainty about how one will be assessed. This tip offers three suggestions for designing and supporting team-based projects, particularly those that involve collaborative writing. For our purposes, collaborative writing entails writing situations in which decisions are made by consensus. Collaborative writing is not simply writing assembled from separately authored pieces and bound together by a common title or slide deck.
Suggestion 1: The Classic Prompt + Interdependence
As with any writing assignment, a team-based project benefits from an effective prompt that specifies a clear purpose, audience, format, and criteria. However, these core elements are often more complex in team-based projects, as the purposes, audiences and formats can vary within a given project. A capstone project in civil engineering, for example, may require that a team write a technical memo for other engineers; a report for a fiscal manager overseeing the project; and any number of other documents directed at various stakeholders, including the general public. Team-based assignment prompts that specify the project’s multiple purposes, formats, and audiences can help guide students when it comes to reaching consensus about the suitability of a particular text, passage, or image and its place within a given document.
The following prompt, from an electrical engineering course, identifies two different audiences, the science teacher and his students:
Mr. Dedecke, a science teacher at FACE High School, has asked us to prepare some materials for his secondary I (grade seven) science students. He is particularly interested in brief explanations of certain relatively simple mechanical and electrical devices (lightbulb, flashlight, thermostat, x-ray machine, etc.). Mr Dedecke will be using the information we provide to teach his students. Although he may supplement material we give him with material of his own, it is best to assume that the information you supply will be all that the 12-to14-year-old students receive on the topic. After we submit the papers to Mr. Dedecke, we will receive plenty of feedback, in person and in writing (cited in Singular Texts/Plural Authors: Perspectives on Collaborative Writing).
Along with specifying the core elements of a prompt, a team-based writing task should be designed for interdependence. That is, it should be sufficiently complex to require collaboration. As Lisa Ede and Andrea Lunsford point out, a collaborative writing assignment is poor and artificial “when one person could really complete the assignment alone: such assignments lead only to busy work and frustration” (Singular Texts/Plural Authors: Perspectives on Collaborative Writing, 123). Interdependence results when tasks are suitably labor-intensive—they need to be divided and shared; specialized—they call for multiple areas of expertise; and synthesis-oriented—they require divergent perspectives to be brought together. (Read more about interdependence at the CMU Eberly Center.)
Though it never mentions the term, the following prompt from mechanical engineering requires interdependence:
Many riders who are injured in motorcycle-related accidents have a desire to return to riding motorcycles. The primary objective of this project is to design and modify a motorcycle to be usable by one such paraplegic rider. Paraplegic riders require a stabilization mechanism for low-speed and stopped conditions, as well as some modified controls. This project will offer one solution that will be applicable to more than one motorcycle design or model. The functional prototype will be used by the customer this summer for a cross-country road trip.
In order to complete this task, group members will need to divide and share time on the research of stabilization mechanisms and the needs of paraplelgic riders, while also collaborating on the “one solution” and design of an eventual prototype.
Suggestion 2: Specify Teamwork Abilities
Often the qualities of effective teamwork are presumed or treated as generic skills commonly transferred from one group project to the next. However, the concept of teamwork, like other intellectual abilities (e.g., analysis, synthesis), should be described as a set of specific practices linked to a particular assignment. For example, in a graphic communications project, where students are tasked with rebranding and developing packaging for a local company, the qualities of teamwork can be specified as a student’s ability to
- Explain their design packaging ideas to each team member
- Listen to alternative ideas and perspectives about rebranding
- Reach consensus about package design
- Coordinate efforts with cost estimating and package prototyping
Specifying core teamwork abilities serves two purposes. First, it makes explicit the collaborative and interdependent nature of team-based work (i.e., every member must explain, listen, reach consensus, and coordinate). Second, it can stand as the foundation for additional accountability and assessment criteria, such as group contracts and group writing plans. When students have a shared understanding of what teamwork entails, they will be much better at evaluating their own performance and those of their partners.
If you would like to consult about ways to specify teamwork abilities for a team-based project, please make an appointment.
Suggestion 3: Teach Collaborative Writing and Editing Strategies
Two common challenges with team-based writing are consistency and workload. When individual students write different sections and then stitch them together into one document, the results are often incongruent. Likewise, when one student is designated (or takes on) the role of the group writer, concerns about fairness and assessment naturally arise. These challenges can be addressed by:
- Requiring students to work with collaborative word processing and planning tools, such as Google Docs. Some students may need support on how to use these tools effectively. Spending time in class reviewing the various ways that students can comment, suggest edits, make revisions, or undo changes will prepare them to work effectively on one shared document together, whether they are in the same room or online. (Read more about Google Docs at the G Suite Learning Center.)
- Scheduling time in class to collaborate on specific writing tasks, such as drafting a thesis statement, reviewing a section, or reading aloud and commenting together on style and fluency. Because of their facility with learning languages, multilingual writers often have a better grasp of English grammar rules than do people who have grown up speaking and writing in English and are thus able to make very strong contributions as writers and editors. All students should collaborate on the editing of content. Read more about collaborative writing strategies.)
- Encouraging collaboration beyond the classroom. To help students coordinate times when they can work together—in person or online—introduce them to free scheduling tools like Doodle or When is Good.
How about you?
Do you assign team-based writing in your courses? If so, please share your experiences and insights in the comment section below. If you would like to consult on team-based assignments—from designs to assessments—please make an appointment.
For further support, see the Teaching with Writing resource pages, including sample assignments and syllabi. As many of you know, our WAC program also hosts the popular Teaching with Writing event series. Each semester, this series offers free workshops and discussions. Visit us online. To schedule a phone, virtual, or face-to-face teaching consultation, click here.
These suggestions are very beneficial. Many of the original theatre pieces that my students write are collaborative. It is very tricky. I find that it helps to have the group establish some “rules of collaboration” in order to facilitate clear communication. Great tips! Thank you!
Thanks, Amy. I agree about the essential need for rules of collaboration. It helps students (all of us, actually) be more accountable to each other
This tip thoughtfully and helpfully addresses some of the critical sticking points in collaborative assignments, specifically working toward collective collaboration rather than fulfilling the assignment in a piece-work, role-specialized fashion. I still have some questions about how to assign individual grades to collectively written projects--both on the final deliverable and on the team's writing and editing process). I appreciate your encouraging consultations to work these schemes out. It seems as though team-members' assessments would be useful here. How about a future tip on self-assessment in individual and team written projects? Thanks!