Collaboration and Teamwork

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Last spring, I posted a Bits blog on peer groups in the writing classroom (Peer Groups in the Technology-Enabled Writing Classroom) . I’d like to extend that post here, with a focus on collaborative writing.

My guess is that most writing teachers use peer review as a primary instructional strategy. I imagine many fewer teachers use collaborative writing or team-based assignments. I see the strategies as related, particularly in first-year composition. Though I have always taught first-year writing, my research and professional interests, from dissertation onward, have focused on scientific, technical, and medical communication. In all such contexts, documents tend to have multiple authors. These authors must plan, draft, and revise documents as a collaborative process. My work in various industries (computer, health, pharmaceutical, government) has convinced me that ability to write in teams is a critical workplace skill. And having to perform as a group member is increasingly typical of many college classes.

When I teach first-year writing, I import instructional strategies that have proven productive over the years in my tech or business writing classes. So while I begin the term with an individual writing assignment, with peer review, I then move to a second assignment, where pairs of students work together to produce a single text. Writing with a partner brings process issues into open discussion:

  • What are we trying to do?
  • What do we know or need to learn?
  • How do you want to manage this assignment?
  • What’s our timetable?
  • Should we meet and work together or pass the draft text back and forth?
  • Can we simply divide the text into parts, compose individually, and then fit them together? (Probably not, at least not without sufficient planning.)

A third assignment places students in teams of four, by combining two pairs. I am lucky to teach in spaces that support teamwork with tables and shared monitors (seeClassroom Design​ and The Writing on the Wall ). By this point, I’ve seen individuals and pairs perform, so when I match pairs, I can try to spread talent and motivation evenly across the teams. Students have the advantage of knowing another’s habits and talents, while the challenge of collaboration is ratcheted up.

Working with three other people is much more difficult than working with one other person. I ask for a written team plan, based on a clear task description, indicating roles and responsibilities, providing a schedule, and allocating hours among team members. Explicit planning helps me know what is going on in the teams, and it helps teams coalesce around shared goals. Teams allocate time for research, drafting, reviewing, and revising, with the goal of bringing an explicit process to their collaborative efforts.

Throughout this work, I stress commitment to team members. Students must notify their teams if they are going to have to miss a class. Students are coached to discuss team issues and individual performance on a regular basis. With five or six teams in the room, I can easily visit each team each period, so I know how things are going. Team members formally evaluate each other on performance, in writing and orally, at project midpoint and in a debriefing at the project closeout, where we reflect on how the teams have performed. Teams know they will share one grade.

In the final third of the course, individuals pursue independently researched projects related to their majors. They stay on their teams, so they have a forum for discussing their projects, and so they have trusted peers to review their work. The pacing of the course, from individual to pairs to four-person teams, and then back to individual performance gives a nice rhythm to the course, and it allows grades to be assigned as a combination of individual and collaborative performance.

If you are someone who values peer review, I would challenge you to extend your practice to collaborative writing. If you already use collaborative assignments and writing teams, I’d welcome your comments.

About the Author
Dr. Stephen A. Bernhardt is recently retired from the University of Delaware, where he held the Andrew B. Kirkpatrick, Jr. Chair in Writing, from which position he promoted strong writing and communication skills across the university. He is the author of Writer's Help, a Web-based reference handbook from Bedford/St. Martin’s, now in Version 2.0. He teaches courses in scientific and technical communication, first year composition, computers and writing, and grammar and style. He taught previously at New Mexico State University and Southern Illinois University-Carbondale. You can learn more about Steve at his Web site.