Assigning team writing projects is a great way to engage students in course content and increase learning. To help students reach their full potential, avoid project designs that can get in the way.
In essays from 295 students in my college writing courses over the last four years, students have written about positive and negative experiences they’ve had while working in collaborative writing teams prior to and during our semester together. Their insights have guided many an assignment redesign in my courses and culminated in the following list of mistakes to avoid when assigning team writing projects. In this article, I focus on issues related to one of the most common writing assignments across the curriculum — the research report — but the principles apply when assigning any genre to teams.
To make your collaborative writing projects successful, avoid these common mistakes in instructional design:
- Don’t let students divide the work by sections of the research report
- Don’t let students choose their own teams
- Don’t let students figure out the challenges of team writing on their own
- Don’t forget about the value of peer review
- Don’t assume students know how to provide useful feedback
- Don’t give a team grade only
Don’t let students divide the work by sections of the research report
Students naturally resort to dividing tasks by the most expedient method possible, which is typically by report section: someone should write the introduction, someone else should write the methods section, and the results, and discussion, or other “obvious” divisions of the final report.
The expedient approach leads to several problems that include poor efficiency but extend more harmfully to poor learning. On the efficiency side, when teams divide tasks by report section, they’ve handcuffed themselves with dependencies. The teammate in charge of writing the results can’t do much until someone else has written up the methods; teammates dedicated to discussion can’t discuss anything until someone has written up the results; it’s hard to write an introduction until they have content to introduce. With so much waiting occurring, learning and productivity suffer.
On the learning side, the whole team needs to share an understanding of the relationship among the four parts of the report in order to be successful. Dividing work by section can undermine that shared understanding because in too many cases, the decision to divide the work by section obviates discussion of their interrelatedness. How they are related becomes apparent eventually but often comes late in the process and accompanied by panic and exasperation.
There’s a better way. When you require all teammates to leave fingerprints on each major section of the report, each teammate has a stake in contributing something of value throughout the work. As importantly, having a shared responsibility for the entire report motivates students to understand what their teammates are doing and writing. The interrelatedness of the sections becomes apparent early on as each teammate considers how to make their contributions to each section.
Don’t let students choose their own teams
Most students have little experience in devising productive teams beyond schoolyard picks based on popularity or friendship. Undergraduate writing requires attention to five broad categories of skills — critical thinking, research, genre/structure, synthesis, and review/editing — skills in which students express interest and confidence ranging in most cases from none to some. Knowing student interest and confidence in the five categories of skill is therefore a good place to start when forming teams.
A simple survey that outlines core writing skills for your course gives you a way to introduce the class to key learning objectives and to start a discussion about what they are, how they fit into the course, and why they’re important. In the survey, ask students to rate their interest and confidence in each of the skills you outline. With that information, you can now balance teams with members who have a mix of interests and a range of confidence.
Don’t let students figure out the challenges of team writing on their own
Students don’t learn as much about their research topic if they’re distracted by the challenges of collaboration. Teams can waste a lot of time talking about who should do what, for example. Without adequate direction, they’re unlikely to reflect on roles that will bring focus to their efforts or tasks that will maximize results. You can help teams avoid those pitfalls by assigning teammate roles and tasks that align with your course learning objectives.
Begin by outlining 4–6 objectives you have for student writing. Use the five I mention above or devise your own. Then outline 4–6 roles for students to take during peer review. In their roles, teammates review drafts of team writing with special attention to the criteria you establish for, say, critical thinking, research, genre/structure, synthesis, and review/editing.
A calendar of key steps helps teams prioritize. Breaking projects into stages for problem definition, research question, source annotation, hypothesizing, drafting, reviewing, and revising — or other framework to suit your course — helps teams establish priorities and divide the work.
Teammates still count on each other for problem solving and learning; the difference is, they’re building on the support you’ve already provided, as the following student comments suggest:
“While doing the research for project two, I had to consult with my teammates several times and get help from them. That was the nice thing about working in a team, it forced me to communicate and ask questions, which helped me to learn much more, even if I thought I was pestering people too much. Overall it was a great learning experience for me.”
“I was expressing my issues to Matt and Parker. Both members added that they were having similar issues and we worked out our problems together.”
“My confidence was reinforced when Owen and I were working together on the Feasibility Report. As we worked together, I found myself finding little issues that I likely would have overlooked before this class. Still lacking confidence, I would bounce ideas off Owen and a majority of the time I was on the right track. Similar situations with other team-mates reinforced that I had made some major improvements in both structure and synthesis.”
Don’t forget about the value of peer review
Thinking too narrowly about the purpose of peer review can undermine its potential. Instructors often assign peer review in order to give students feedback on their written work. Peer review in this respect leads to improved writing. Here’s what students say is the value of peer review during team writing projects:
“My teammates made team writing very enjoyable since each of us made quality comments on our work in order to come up with the best product we could.”
“I appreciated the feedback I received from my teammates during peer review. By reviewing other students’ documents, I was able to assess my own progress and incorporate their ideas into my work.”
While peer review does indeed lead to improvements in the written product, the performance of peer review also improves the reviewer’s learning. Particularly, peer review has a way of changing reviewers’ perceptions of your writing requirements:
“Organization is one of my personal strengths throughout my life, so being able to utilize that skill within my peer review in a way that I hadn’t experienced before was very refreshing. I initially thought this role was a bit of a “filler” role, as genre and structure can both be very vague terms. However, through project two, I very quickly found out that it was quite the opposite. Simply making sure that the essay was following the guidelines/prompt, and ensuring that each teammate was contributing to each section was highly important.”
Peer review can help with the need to engage students online while supporting key learning objectives:
“I also really appreciated how my group was willing to help each other whenever any of us had a question or someone felt like they were not completing their peer review portion correctly. For example, I can think of a time when we were in our Zoom breakout room and one of my group members was revising the genre/structure and asked for group feedback. After asking for feedback we were able to recognize that this group member was correcting the captions and in-text citations wrong. We were able to fix this mistake as a group and we all gained knowledge how to use genre and structure correctly.”
Don’t assume students know how to provide useful feedback
To realize the full potential of peer review, instructors can assign course-specific tasks based on the five broad categories of writing skill — critical thinking, research, genre/structure, synthesis, and review/editing.
What does effective critical thinking look like in your course? Is it student attention to audience, purpose, topic, and tone, for example? Assign the teammate in the critical thinking role to look for attention to those features of critical thinking — to note their absence or suggest their inclusion.
What are your research requirements? Do you have criteria for assessing research questions, hypotheses, source validity, and citations? Assign the teammate in the research role to look for attention to those features in the draft — to note their absence or suggest their inclusion.
Similarly outline your requirements for genre and structure, for synthesizing source information, and requirements for final review and editing based on your discipline’s publishing guidelines.
Most importantly, directing student peer review responses leads to another pillar of effective collaborative writing: interdependence. Because the aggregate number of tasks you create for the five roles is likely to be too expansive for any single student to complete on their own, all teammates have a real stake in improving the team’s work during peer review. The expansiveness of your requirements during peer review also discourages take-charge students from thinking they can do it all themselves and undermining meaningful collaboration.
Teams come up with a variety of ways to assign peer review roles, but comments like the following come up often enough to suggest that serendipity has a role to play in some learning:
“When my group was assigning roles for peer review, the one that I ended up with was Genre/Structure. I would’ve initially preferred the role of Review/Editing, but I’m happy that I was able to learn more about this role instead. In my week one essay I expressed my confidence in editing, but the beauty of the roles in this course is that each one holds/shares traits of the general proofreading and revision process that I enjoy. Through practicing this role in project two, I would easily say that it became the role that I am now most confident with.”
Don’t give a team grade only
A persistent cause of students’ negative perceptions of team writing is the instructor’s decision to assign only a team grade to collaborative writing projects. Students report resentment of teammates “who benefit from my work without doing anything,” and “who take over the project and don’t include any of my ideas” — both scenarios attributed to the pursuit of a high team grade.
Nothing in the 295 essays suggest it’s true that giving a team grade motivates students to pull together. Instead, anxiety spikes among many students, often the most committed ones, and the anxiety trickles out in harmful ways. Already predisposed to “take charge,” many students report having to “do everything myself” even when evidence of teammate slacking is absent.
Many who like to take charge are off-the-platers — students who like to get their work done as soon as possible — and they misperceive their deadline-driven teammates who “wait until the last minute” as slackers. As a result, off-the-platers worry about others dragging their work down, and that worry undermines the purpose of collaboration, which is to promote divergent thinking. When the take-charge student starts taking over, they discourage some teammates from weighing in.
Grade-anxious students also often communicate with teammates with an entitled attitude that makes teammates wonder who put them in charge. Teammate defensiveness rises, motivation falls, collaboration falls apart.
Grading students for their individual contributions to the group project, on the other hand, changes everything. Now everyone on the team has a clear incentive to contribute and less incentive to dominate, exclude, or disappear from the project.
Combining individual grades with a requirement that all teammates contribute to all key sections of the report is a powerful and valuable incentive to collaborate. When each teammate has to contribute to the introduction, methods, results, and discussion sections, everyone has a stake in the outcome. And should one or more teammates not meet their commitments, the work is not missing an entire section but only a part of the sections to which they did not contribute. As an instructor, you can evaluate individual contributions without unfairly penalizing or rewarding anyone.
- Requiring teammate contributions to all sections of the report helps ensure the whole team is on the same page.
- Learning about student interest and confidence in key learning objectives helps you create balanced teams.
- Unless the point of your course is for students to research their intuitions about teamwork so they can measure the effectiveness of their intuitions in achieving teamwork goals, letting teams figure out the challenges on their own is an obstacle to collaboration. Teaching and supporting collaborative writing is essential to successful teamwork and learning.
- Peer review roles and tasks based on course learning objectives immerses students in course vocabulary and opportunities for applied learning.
- Defining and exemplifying peer review objectives increases learning for writer and reviewer.
- A team grade leads to a negative experience in two key ways: 1) it raises anxiety among students who are invested in the course, and 2) it causes resentment. Giving students grades for their individual contributions to the shared project supports collaboration.
Thank you to students of my technical and professional writing courses who have given permission to quote from their work.
Joe Moses is Senior Lecturer of Writing Studies at the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities. He is co-author with Jason Tham of The Collaborative Writing Playbook: An Instructor’s Guide to Designing Writing Projects for Student Teams, from Parlor Press.