By Joe Moses
The Teaching with Writing Blog is pleased to feature guest bloggers, who share excellent tips for integrating writing into their classes. This month’s guest blogger, Joe Moses, Ph.D., is senior lecturer of Writing Studies at the University of Minnesota and co-author with Jason Tham (Texas Tech) of the Collaborative Writing Playbook: An Instructor’s Guide to Designing Writing Projects for Student Teams (Parlor Press, 2021) and Writing to Learn in Teams: A Collaborative Writing Playbook for Students Across the Curriculum, due fall of 2022.
Collaborative writing, group writing, and team projects that include a writing component can all support student learning by exposing teammates to different perspectives on topics, on problems worth solving, and on a variety of potential solutions. At the same time, students and instructors may be nervous about unequal participation and dread the challenge of managing projects. Groups with members who fail to contribute, or groups where all members aren’t able to contribute, undermine the learning and productivity potential of projects. That’s why building explicit expectations for participation into your collaborative writing project design is time well spent.
How should we understand equal participation in Team Writing?
Some students don’t contribute as fully as others in team projects, and absence during class sessions and missed or ignored deadlines can be truly disruptive to team productivity. At the same time, low participation from some students can occur for reasons other than an unwillingness to pull their own weight.
Students are responsible to many others outside of class and outside of school, and those responsibilities can take a toll on the strongest commitment to a team project. Students sometimes fall short not because they’re lazy or inconsiderate but because everyone has to weigh priorities. Consider these demands on student time and attention:
- My family is visiting this weekend.
- I have a big midterm coming up.
- I work the next three nights in a row.
- I’m embarrassed about my writing.
- I have no time over the weekend to catch up.
- My schedule conflicts with our next meeting time.
- The job fair is tomorrow.
- I’m traveling to a tournament.
- My mother is seriously ill.
What looks like slacking to one student may feel entirely different to another. Acknowledging such realities may or may not improve participation, but it can set a tone that prevents shaming and encourages transparency. Giving students permission to name the obstacles they face does not result in a proliferation of excuses; it does help prevent surprises and discouragement.
Multilingual students who are not from the majority culture and first-generation college students are susceptible to a number of unconscious biases that can undermine inclusivity and their full participation—assumptions about teammates’ abilities, preferences, or expertise, for example. Students with little or no prior experience in team writing might not have a clear understanding of how to participate.
Teamwork, or the pursuit of shared goals, is a key advantage of collaborative writing that helps some students perform better than they would when working independently. Students report that the commitments they make to teammates help them stay focused and more productive than they would be if they only had to answer to themselves. But assessing teamwork only by a standard of equal participation can exacerbate the impact of situational inequities among teammates.
The strategies that follow emphasize directions we can take to support inclusivity and participation. A writing environment and assignment design that acknowledges obstacles to participation can have a positive effect on the student experience for everyone. These strategies also support a structure for evaluating individual contributions to collaborative writing projects.
Strategy 1: Establish team norms and expectations that value inclusive participation
While few students or instructors would deny the importance of inclusivity in team projects, it’s not always easy to recognize words or gestures that can undermine an inclusive learning environment for all writers. Discussing norms for inclusivity can create awareness that invites participation and establishes a foundation for inclusive interactions.
Sample norms for inclusive writing teams:
- Share responsibility for inclusivity among all teammates.
- Invite, welcome, and weigh perspectives of all teammates before making decisions.
- Act if you feel that someone's viewpoint is not being respected or heard.
- Include diverse voices instead of pursuing a “unified” voice.
- Practice inclusivity before efficiency.
- Value inclusivity over consensus.
An inclusive mindset may contradict some preferred strategies for decision-making. When compared with group agreements that value consensus, for example, agreements that value inclusivity can take a different path to a different destination.
|Common Group Agreements||Inclusive Group Agreements|
|Pursue consensus (agreement)||Explore differences and disagreements as opportunities for learning|
|Majority rule in decision-making||Decisions comprised of multiple perspectives and directions subject to review|
|Practices/policies fixed in advance||Practices/policies evolve|
|Power/race-neutral||Power and racial dynamics (inequity) are recognized (Gonzalez & Forstie, 2021).|
Practices in both columns have advantages and disadvantages. Pursuing consensus, for example, can lead to all teammates reaching the same understanding of a problem or a solution, which aids productivity. Similarly, acting based on the preferences of a majority in the group can be expedient while also being satisfying for most teammates.
Disadvantages of pursuing consensus include discouraging alternative solutions and extended conversations that could widen and deepen understanding. Majority rule by definition identifies a majority and a minority, which may marginalize some teammates and discourage them from further participation.
Strategy 2: Require all students to contribute to all sections of written work
Students often comment that being able to divide the work among several teammates is an advantage of team writing projects. At the same time, having to rely on teammates to contribute is a persistent source of anxiety. Teammates who prefer to get the work off their plates as soon as it’s assigned report anxiety when students who are deadline-driven “wait until the last minute.” Students who are deadline-driven complain of nagging from off-the-platers.
Students (and instructors) can exacerbate the problem by dividing the project into key sections that are completed by different group members. For example, a collaborative research report where one student writes the introduction, and others write the methods, results, and conclusions is a fairly common assignment design. In such projects, someone is always waiting for someone else’s work. And if one or more teammates face a family emergency, a personal crisis, or an exam in their major, entire sections of the project may be missing or incomplete. An alternative is to ask all teammates to contribute on some level to all sections of the project.
By asking different teammates to craft parts of the introduction, for example, the whole team reflects on what they’re introducing. Sample prompts for an introduction section will vary widely by instructor and discipline. Here are a few examples:
- Explain the purpose of the [report]
- Describe the problem you’re addressing in specific terms of its [human/social/financial/ business/political] impact
- Discuss why the problem is [urgent/important/relevant] right now
- Introduce the [content/structure/thesis] of the work
Purpose, problem, timeliness, and other elements may not be discrete features of any rhetorical situation, but that’s the point. Individual responses to the prompts inform the team of ways teammates are thinking about important questions and how they’re related to each other, which can lead to insightful conversations and durable learning. Whether individual expressions from each prompt wind up being included, altered, or omitted from the final draft, teams and instructor have a record of who has and has not contributed to an important discussion.
Advantages of the strategy also include students engaging with each other over content requirements while gaining a more thorough understanding of, in this case, instructor expectations for a well-crafted introduction.
Strategy 3: Assign peer response and editing roles to all members
If a student can’t or chooses not to make the team project a priority, team productivity can falter unless the active teammates have specific roles to play on the project. Assigning specific tasks by role during peer review or editing, for example, is one way teams can remain productive should someone be out of touch for a while. With a record of teammates and their roles, and a requirement to label all comments with their role’s name, it’s also easy to identify and evaluate individual contributions.
Here are sample review roles and tasks that can be customized to fit disciplines:
|Peer review roles||Tasks|
|Critical thinking||Look for achievement in meeting critical thinking requirements for [audience, purpose, tone, trust, interpretation, and evaluation]. Suggest ways of meeting requirements.|
|Research||Look for achievement in meeting research requirements for [research question, hypothesis, valid sources]. Suggest ways of meeting requirements.|
|Genre and structure||Look for achievement in meeting genre and structure requirements for [section headings and all assigned content sections]. Suggest ways of meeting requirements.|
|Synthesis||Look for achievement in meeting synthesis requirements [signal phrases, paraphrases, and citations]. Suggest ways of meeting requirements.|
When inclusivity is a norm, more students feel invited to participate. When projects require contributions by all teammates to the entire project instead of only a part, all teammates have an incentive to engage with teammates and share their interpretations of project requirements. And when peer review or editing roles are well defined, all teammates have a clear understanding of how to participate.
How do you invite participation in your team writing projects? Please share your insights, questions and observations in the comment section below. If you have problem-solving strategies when one or more teammates fall behind on projects, please share them.
Gonzalez, A. & Forstie, C. (2021). Foundations of inclusive teaching - pedagogy & content. Google slides. Center for Educational Innovation, University of Minnesota.
For more information about collaborative writing project design:
Moses, J. & Tham, J. (2021). Collaborative writing playbook: An instructor’s guide to designing writing projects for student teams. Anderson, South Carolina: Parlor Press.
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