Six mistakes to avoid when assigning team writing projects

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.

  1. Don’t let students choose their own teams
  2. Don’t let students figure out the challenges of team writing on their own
  3. Don’t forget about the value of peer review
  4. Don’t assume students know how to provide useful feedback
  5. 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.

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.

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.

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:

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.

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.

The takeaways

  1. Requiring teammate contributions to all sections of the report helps ensure the whole team is on the same page.
  2. Learning about student interest and confidence in key learning objectives helps you create balanced teams.
  3. 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.
  4. Peer review roles and tasks based on course learning objectives immerses students in course vocabulary and opportunities for applied learning.
  5. Defining and exemplifying peer review objectives increases learning for writer and reviewer.
  6. 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.

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

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