Three books to teach the “soft skills” employers want in 21st century team members

Joe Moses and Jason Tham

According to the World Economic Forum, “talents like empathy, adaptability, and a knack for communicating your ideas” are skills companies need:

As companies grapple with digitization, automation, and constant change, creating a culture where people can communicate their ideas is crucial to competitiveness. So are collaboration and creative thinking (World Economic Forum).

To meet demand for workplace skills, we have signed with Parlor Press to publish three books on collaborative writing, due out in 2020–21:

Collaborative Writing Playbook: An Instructor’s Guide to Designing Writing Projects for Student Teams

Writing to Learn in Teams: A Collaborative Writing Playbook for Students Across the Curriculum

Collaborative Writing at Work: A Playbook for Teams

Collaborative writing in college is where learning in the arts, sciences, and humanities can advance in parallel with vital employment skills of collaborative problem solving because learning and problem solving are both improved when the work takes place in teams.

Deloitte’s Human Capital Trends 2018 puts a fine point on the demand for teamwork extending far beyond the academy:

As the business environment becomes more competitive and digital disruption continues, organizations have become more team-centric, networked, and agile.

Hidden within the workplace teamwork trend is an opportunity to enhance learning in higher education, which has focused on the individual student throughout most of its history. Writing for the National Education Association in Thought & Action, Harris and Schaible observe that “a substantial body of evidence demonstrates improved subject-specific learning when writing across the curriculum is used in a rigorous manner,” and that’s exactly what The Collaborative Writing Playbooks deliver — a framework for rigorous pursuit of the benefits of writing to learn.

The playbooks also address a finding about a key obstacle to adopting Writing Across the Curriculum (WAC): the correlation between positive learning outcomes with a 25% increase in instructor workload. When instructors learn that they can achieve better learning outcomes and reduce their paper-grading workload by 83% by assigning team-based writing instead of individual writing projects, they’re going to want to use the playbooks to make collaborative writing the norm rather than the exception in their courses. It’s simple math: in a class of 24 students, an instructor who grades four collaboratively written papers instead of 24 individually written ones achieves an 83% decrease in paper workload. Using techniques from the playbooks, we have increased student satisfaction with team writing while students have demonstrated more learning in their collaborative work than in their individual work.

Photo by Marvin Meyer on Unsplash

Changing student attitudes toward collaborative writing

Techniques from the playbooks consistently lead to increased positive perceptions of collaborative writing. These student comments capture the essential changes in point of view while working in collaborative writing teams:

Communication

“The detail and frequency of communication among our team was by far greater than communication among teams in my prior academic courses.”

“I also learned a lot about communication skills with team members and how to complete teamwork.”

“There was fantastic communication on both the document and GroupMe throughout the drafting phases that kept everyone in the loop on what section group members were doing and I was pleasantly surprised by this.”

“We talked through our expectations as individuals and as a team, which helped build a solid foundation for us to work off of. Our communication throughout the semester was better than I expected it to be. We had several absences throughout the semester, but we were always able to relay important information to the whoever missed class.”

Self-awareness

“I have learned several ways in which to revise my teammate’s work to improve their technical writing and further develop my own understanding.”

“I learned about myself and my writing skills, and now I’m able to reflect on my strengths and areas of improvement.”

Collaborative learning

“I had never assumed group writing could be so helpful: You can see both your advantages and shortcomings; you can learn a lot from your partners.”

“The projects being on Google Drive helped with inspiration about what to write as well as ideas for how to organize my writing while still staying within the bounds of the project.”

“We spent a lot of time discussing the logic, structure, sources and expressions. As a result, we came up with an excellent report. Last but not least, I cannot appreciate [teammates] more since they did teach me a lot.”

“Working as a team to determine how we can improve campus health and wellness brought up many points and ideas I hadn’t thought of. It was interesting to hear personal experiences of living in the dorms and different reasons why people had issues with the dining hall.”

“Despite having previous negative opinions of group work, I did not mind working in a group for writing. I found that overall, it accented what I was best at and helped me improve areas I struggled with. It was a positive experience and I would gladly participate in a group writing project again.”

Changes in perception

“However, my perceptions off team writing have improved from initial expectations, and I now see it as an efficient means to produce work of coherent quality.”

“…this course has definitely changed my view of team writing projects. The amount of organization and communication during the projects has given me a positive outlook on collaborative team writing.”

Productivity

“Setting deadlines for our group and committing to tasks, both verbally and electronically, has greatly improved accountability and I am far less likely to procrastinate if I have communicated to my team members that I will accomplish ‘X’ by this day at this time.”

“Everyone contributed equally to the different phases of the assignment, and it was easy to see that everyone cared about how our final product turned out.”

Confidence

“…now I can happily admit my weaknesses because I know everyone has been in my shoes, as I have in theirs. I’ve been forced to face my limitations many times before this class, but now I know how to embrace and express my writing-specific obstacles through a method that works for me.”

“I felt more confident about team writing projects in the future.”

Our playbooks support collaborative writing in teams by aligning team-writing roles and tasks with project objectives. Interactive exercises and page design give instructors, students, and professional teams tools for achieving the potential of collaborative learning in writing projects across the disciplines.

The books are the product of collaborations with several groups at the University of Minnesota — Twin Cities: UMN Writing Studies Department, Center for Writing’s Interdisciplinary Studies of Writing and Writing Across the Curriculum Programs, the Emerging Technologies Research Collaboratory, and the Center for Educational Innovation.

Publication announcements

To receive first notice of availability, please email moses004@umn.edu to be placed on our announcement list.

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

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