5 collaborative writing roles that make sense — and some that don’t

Joe Moses and Jason Tham

Photo by JJ Ying on Unsplash

We know that assigning roles in team project is effective. People who research collaborative writing (CW) have said for a long time that assigning specific roles and tasks to teammates makes teams more productive because doing so eliminates the time, effort, and confusion that follow when we ask student teams to work out roles or tasks for themselves.

Unfortunately, a sizable chunk of the scholarship suggests assigning roles and tasks based on small-group facilitation practices. There should be a time keeper, a note taker, and a facilitator to keep teams on task, for example. Some studies suggest the effectiveness of a “doubter” role who helps teams identify opposing views, or the adoption of personas such as CEO, anthropologist, doctor or other key players in case-based learning.

While such roles can make sense in specific cases, we don’t think they necessarily make sense in CW assignment design generally. We are also suggesting that the most authentic roles on CW teams, the ones that will make teams the most productive and add the most value to CW projects, are cross-functional roles that align with specific course learning objectives.

In an earlier article, we outlined five basic roles as a starting point for writing teams: critical thinking, research, genre/structure, synthesis, and review/editing. We call them cross-functional because they all contribute to one common goal but from different perspectives.

The five roles have emerged over the last four years as we have tested a variety of activities for making CW work in our courses. We have found that, in courses in which writing is a mode of learning, and when instructors evaluate learning based on the work teams produce, these five roles are among the most authentic and useful roles we can assign.

To test whether the roles would be useful across the curriculum, we compared writing-related learning objectives developed by faculty across the curriculum at the University of Minnesota. Over twelve years as of 2018, researchers in the University’s Writing Enriched Curriculum (WEC) Program compiled 97 sets of objectives written by faculty in units across colleges — Academic Health Center, College of Biological Sciences, College of Continuing Education, College of Design, College of Education and Human Development, College of Food, Agricultural and Natural Resources, College of Liberal Arts, College of Science and Engineering, Carlson School of Management.

We looked at two sets of objectives: ones related to characteristics of writing by discipline, and ones related to writing abilities that students should have when they graduate.

Responses varied widely by college, major, or field; faculty described communication in their fields as analytical, creative, scientific, descriptive, persuasive, logical, or thesis-driven among many other characteristics.

When describing objectives related to writing skills, faculty said students should be able to write concisely, to organize content according to genre guidelines, to be precise and clear, to write accurate interpretations, and to evaluate sources and ideas clearly and persuasively, among many other writing abilities.

Even though the modes of inquiry vary widely by discipline, as do learning objectives by course, the writing tasks that students perform while pursuing diverse objectives fall into five broad categories from which we devised five basic roles for collaborative writing teammates. We call the roles basic because they serve as a starting point for thinking about ways of aligning writing-to-learn with course learning objectives.

For writing teams, five basic teammate roles align with learning objectives in courses across the curriculum: research, critical thinking, genre/structure, synthesis, and review/editing.

Assigning cross-functional roles helps students see the complexity behind the most simple-sounding assignments and — by seeing the true complexity — to budget their time more realistically. [Time being an obsession among undergraduate students — how to spend it, save it, invest it, waste it, protect it, maximize and prioritize it — and a constant source of anxiety that can intensify when teammates underestimate how much of it they need to complete tasks.] If a teammate is charged with writing a paragraph for a report, for example, that might seem like a fairly simple single task. But the tasks that students have to perform in order to write one paragraph suggest that the assignment is more demanding and time consuming than may first appear.


  • Find two sources about a startup that would be negatively impacted by repeal of net neutrality. (A research task.)
  • Annotate sources. (A critical thinking task that involves multiple steps — for example, determining source validity, purpose, author credibility; defining key terms, identifying counter-arguments.)
  • Write a claim about the negative impact of net neutrality repeal. (A synthesis task.)
  • Use the example of a specific startup to support your claim. (A critical thinking task and, for many projects, a genre requirement that specifies tone and organization.)
  • Write an evaluative conclusion about the significance of the example. (A synthesis task.)
  • Proofread and edit your work. (A review/editing task.)

In many an assigned project, the tasks we’ve outlined above may exist more as unspoken instructor expectations than instructional imperatives. Instructors in upper-division courses may believe that students have already learned how to do research in their first two years of college so no explicit instruction about “the obvious” is necessary. But modes of inquiry differ so widely, instructors’ teaching philosophies are, perhaps, so idiosyncratic, and students’ cognitive loads are stressed by so many stimuli that instructor expectations are likely to be invisible unless they’re made explicit. Examining roles and tasks can help instructors bring implicit expectations into the light. Aligning writing roles and tasks with learning objectives can make teaching more effective.

In the earlier article, we outlined the five basic roles, which we include below along with some guiding questions for adapting roles and tasks to your learning objectives.

Teammates in the critical thinking role should be assigned tasks for achieving course-specific critical thinking objectives. In STEM fields, objectives include using knowledge and skills in problem solving. In arts and humanities courses, objectives are often defined in visual, rhetorical, or analytical terms.

As you reflect on learning objectives in your course, what counts as critical thinking about assigned readings, classroom activities, and course projects? What tasks do you imply when you ask students to think critically about sources, problems, solutions, or analyses? How can you make them explicit in your assignments?

Teammates in the research role should be assigned tasks for pursuing course-specific research objectives for acquiring knowledge and skills in information gathering and analysis — or others according to your course goals.

Outline a set of tasks that expose students to discipline-specific practices for devising research questions, hypotheses, and methods; for discussing human impact, cause and effect or other modes of inquiry. What qualitative or quantitative data-gathering tasks should students perform?

Teammates in the genre/structure role should be assigned tasks for achieving course-specific knowledge about genres — and skills in developing content that is organized and formatted according to professional standards.

Most genres include an orientation function, providing genre-specific introductory information; a key-idea function in the form of a thesis, purpose statement, or other means of indicating a primary focus; an evaluative function that emphasizes the importance or value of the topic; and a conclusion function for drawing to a close. What tasks can you assign to the genre/structure role to draw attention to specific expectations about the function of content in collaborative writing projects?

Teammates in the synthesis role should be assigned tasks for pursuing course-specific achievement in using source material.

What counts as synthesis in your course? What does it look like? For example, does it look like a claim-support-conclusion sequence? Does it look like integrating visuals to illustrate an analytical strategy? How can you assign tasks that enable students to use course-specific tools for evaluating and interpreting readings, sources, and other course content?

Teammates in the review/editing role should be assigned tasks for course-specific achievement in preparing final materials for teammate or instructor evaluation and professional publication.

Could preparing a checklist of 10 review/editing tasks that represent the most common issues you see in student writing help make some of your expectations explicit? A teammate in the review/editing role can quickly highlight collaboratively written content to indicate the need for review of checklist items.

Redundancy on purpose

The point of assigning roles and tasks is to outline an explicit set of activities that align student writing efforts with course learning objectives. Especially during peer review, cross-functional role and task assignments focus teammates’ attention on specific project requirements, which they internalize over time and remember when developing their own content.

But the goal isn’t to always make tasks exclusive to one role. Assigning the same task to more than one role helps differing opinions emerge for discussion. Assigning students in two different roles to discuss the key purpose of content they’ve developed together, for example, is likely to result in differing opinions about which purpose is primary and which are subordinate, helping teams to make decisions about content focus and team direction.

When assigned to student teams who work in a writing process for collaborative thinking, the roles and tasks you assign can give teammates the multiple perspectives they need to work productively with each other.



Senior Lecturer, Writing Studies, University of Minnesota. Collaborative writer.

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Joe Moses

Senior Lecturer, Writing Studies, University of Minnesota. Collaborative writer.