Stop using traditional writing process models for team-writing projects

Joe Moses and Jason Tham

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Photo by Olga Guryanova on Unsplash

It’s no wonder so many students don’t like team writing. Often given little instruction in how to write collaboratively, students are left with little more direction than wherever their anxieties point them. Students report feelings of anxiety about measuring up. They worry about losing track of what teammates are doing. They fear that teammates’ words won’t all “flow” together in the end.

For instructors, the prospect of assigning collaborative writing raises fears of having to spend hours devising roles and tasks so teams distribute workloads evenly. But collaborative writing can be so effective, students can learn so much, while gaining valuable teamwork experience that instructors may go ahead and assign team writing anyway, hoping against hope that teams will “figure it out for themselves.”

We have both gone down that road, and we have learned what happens. Without sufficient direction, teammates default to expediency in response to an assortment of unanswered questions. Out of impatience and lack of guidance, they split up sections of a document and write individually. Then they combine the pieces and call it done — flow or no flow. When conflicts arise, they point fingers or seethe silently, but eventually someone goes to the instructor. And when that happens, instructors learn, usually too late, that a strategy of letting teams figure things out for themselves just doesn’t work.

Here’s what we’ve learned

For all the team-writing nightmares we’ve heard about, we know that collaborative writing has a lot to offer students — and instructors, too. Through our own collaborative writing successes (we hope you think this post is one of them), we have learned that the time we spend collaborating on writing, and the time we spend designing collaborative writing projects for our students, pays off in engaged students, productive teams, and truly insightful writing from teams.

We have learned that not every student comes to class with negative attitudes toward team writing. Many, in fact, value collaborative writing. These are just four among dozens of reasons they give for the rewarding team-writing projects they have completed:

  • Learning from others during collaboration
  • Applying outside of class what we learn about collaboration in class
  • Improving individual writing through collaboration with teammates
  • Learning how I can benefit a team

Because we have worked together on several collaborative writing projects in teams ranging from two to six authors, we set out to learn how we could help students realize the same rewards as we have. We have tried many ideas over the last four years, and we are now seeing consistently positive results. This is what we’ve learned:

To achieve the benefits of collaborative writing, projects require more than a detailed description of goals and expectations. Collaborative-writing projects require an environment that supports collaboration, a process for teams that encourages productivity, and a set of roles for aligning specific teammate tasks with specific learning outcomes for the project.

1. An environment that supports collaboration

An environment supports collaboration when classroom time reinforces three values and associated practices:

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Transparency: Making thinking visible

Teammates frequently report frustration with not knowing what others on the team are doing. Sharing documents via Google Drive is one way teams can see with teammates are thinking, while giving instructors a way of holding all teammates accountable for contributing by checking the document’s version history.

Frequent short in-class writing activities and feedback sessions help instructors learn what students are thinking. Having groups write in teams of five or six, not only significantly reduces an instructor’s paper grading workload, but it exposes teammates to a variety of perspectives about assignment goals and instructor expectations, acting as a vital catalyst for questions that lead to clarification early and often throughout the project.

Review: Assess project increments frequently

Holding off peer or instructor review until teams have written an entire draft of a report undermines team productivity. Frequent, brief review of titles, headings, phrases, or other small increments of text or visuals helps focus and redirect student attention when it’s needed throughout the project rather than only after students have spent hours writing.

Opportunities for review can occur frequently in five-minute writing assignments in which students write on a shared doc projected on screen, in brief discussions of examples the instructor has curated from current or former students to illustrate high achievement or ideas for improvement. Transparency and frequent review contribute to an environment that values the sharing of ideas and collaborative thinking.

Adaptation: Make changes based on learning needs

Exposure to ideas via transparency and review results in learning that reveals the need to adapt. During review, students learn whether their ideas are well-formed, whether they have done adequate research, met genre expectations, synthesized course content sufficiently, or edited their work effectively. Instructors can also adapt to what they learn during review about students’ understanding of course content and instructor expectations.

Go to Four ideas for creating a collaborative writing environment that works on Medium

2. A process for collaborative thinking

Collaborative writing teams need a process for reflecting not only on words on the page but writers on the team. Serial (horizontal) writing processes that emphasize text production — the familiar pre-writing, drafting, review, revision process, for example — are effective in helping individuals manage the complexities of individual writing, but in collaborative writing, serial writing process heuristics undermine authentic interdependent collaboration.

Serial writing process models treat core activities as occurring sequentially and undermine authentic interdependent collaboration.

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In contrast, a parallel (vertical) writing process models help teams manage the complexities of collaborative writing by revealing interdependencies among core writing activities — interdependencies that are masked when employing serial processes.

By parallel we mean examining diverse perspectives that students bring to the classroom through models that treat pre-writing, drafting, review, and revision as activities occurring in parallel.

A parallel writing process model for collaboration treats core writing activities as occurring simultaneously.

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Transposing the process to enable teams to craft increments of a writing project — a title, subject headings, a few sentences — and subjecting those increments to review and revision — gives teams a chance to identify differences in style early.

Parallel writing is necessary to productive writing in teams, but transposition is insufficient to the task of managing complexities of writers on teams. A writing process for managing the complexities of collaborative writing must include attention to both writing and writers, as suggested in the following five steps.

a. Empathizing

We commonly ask students — and professionals, for that matter — to empathize with their audiences so writers understand audience needs, interests, and experience levels well enough to develop relevant, valuable, and accessible information. For writing teams to be productive, they must not only understand their audiences, but they much similarly explore teammates’ needs, interests, and experience levels in order to avoid making false assumptions about each other that can undermine productive collaboration.

b. Defining

A variety of persistent negative perceptions about collaborative writing can be linked to teams favoring expediency over reflection and problem definition. A take-charge kind of teammate floats ideas, an outspoken teammate tosses out some others — and the rest of the team follow along for a variety of unexplored reasons.

Therefore, defining problems and goals based on ideas from all teammates, and subjecting all ideas to discussion and assessment by comparing them to project objectives, is a valuable stage in the collaborative writing process.

c. Ideating or brainstorming

An important step in further defining problems to address in writing teams includes making visible each individuals’ understandings of the problem. Individual expressions may be verbal or visual but all teammates must contribute if teams are to maximize the benefits of collaboration.

d. Reviewing

Subjecting ideas to review by stakeholders who have a variety of investments in the problem gives teams valuable information for validating and redirecting their efforts. Frequent review enables teammates to adapt to what they learn. Instructor feedback to teams is more efficient than feedback to individual students because instructors can address comments to everyone on the team at the same time. During peer review, teammates can provide focused feedback based on specific roles they play on the team (see section 3 below).

e. Team retrospective

Exploring team processes and reflecting on their effectiveness gives teams a chance to continuously improve their productivity. Periodic discussions about what’s working, what’s not working — often in terms of teammate communication but also in terms of teammate understanding of priorities and requirements — help teams determine what they should continue doing, stop doing, and modify to align future efforts with project-specific goals.

3. Roles and tasks to perform in parallel writing

Collaborative writing teammates must have specific roles and tasks to perform in parallel writing in order to take full advantage of opportunities for collaborative learning. Researchers have long suggested assigning specific roles for making teammates productive, but the roles tend to derive from small-group facilitation practices of time keeping, note taking, and redirecting discussions to keep teams on task. Teammate roles should be aligned more specifically 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. When assigned to teammates who work in a writing process for collaborative thinking, the five roles give teammates the perspectives they need to work productively in parallel with each other.

Roles Working in Parallel Writing

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Critical thinking role

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.

Research role

Teammates in the research role should be assigned tasks for achieving course-specific research objectives for achieving knowledge and skills in information gathering and analysis.

Genre/structure role

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.

Synthesis role

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

Review/editing role

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

The potential of collaborative learning is difficult to realize with strategies designed for individual learning. Privileging individual thinking over making thinking visible, employing serial writing-process heuristics instead of parallel-process ones, and assigning roles based on generic small-group facilitation models instead of course-specific learning objectives all work against high achievement in collaborative writing teams. When combined, an environment for collaborative learning, a process for collaborative thinking, and roles aligned with course learning objectives form a framework for collaborative writing to learn that supports outcomes that instructors and students can be proud of.

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

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