Four ideas for creating a collaborative writing environment that works

Joe Moses
Joe Moses
Feb 25, 2019 · 6 min read

Joe Moses and Jason Tham

Photo by freestocks.org on Unsplash

We recently posted a piece whose upshot was that instructors should stop using a writing process designed for individual writers when assigning collaborative writing projects.

Collaborative writing (CW) is so different from individual writing that, in addition to the writing process, the environment in which CW takes place should be redesigned, too. By environment we mean more than how you arrange the furniture, although enabling teammates to sit together is always a good idea.

An environment for collaborative writing should

1. Encourage collaboration inside and outside of class.

2. Enable students to share ideas very easily (transparency),

3. Accommodate frequent discussions (review) of teammates’ work, and

4. Welcome changes (adaptation) based on what students learn about each other and their project — and on what instructors learn about students.

Collaborating inside and outside of class

We use Google Docs, Sheets, and Slides, so our examples refer to Google Drive (Drive), but any platform that enables students to write on shared files and comment on teammate work synchronously and asynchronously contributes significantly to transparency.

Transparency

Ever wish you knew what your students were thinking? We’ve found that students are willing to tell us what they’re thinking when we give them a variety of opportunities for telling us. For example, we periodically ask teammates to tell us what obstacles they anticipate as they think about completing tasks that they have agreed to perform in their teams. “Honesty counts” is the mantra, so we invite students to record not only what they plan to do but what might get in the way of doing it. We thought students might use the Obstacles column on a shared table of teammate tasks and dates to say they didn’t understand what was expected of them, but instead, we’ve seen obstacles such as “Hockey game,” “parents visiting,” “Halloween,” “birthday party,” and a host of other events that compete for their time. Many also post “Work 20 hours,” “study for exams in other courses,” and “finish homework for other courses” as persistent obstacles to productivity in our courses.

While we knew of course that students had other courses and that many were working at least part-time — if not more — we never felt as clearly how time pressures constantly weigh on students’ minds until we asked them to be honest about what they could and could not commit to finishing by due dates. Our new understanding hasn’t changed the workloads we assign — we have our own academic commitments to meet — but the information helps teammates, and us as instructors, achieve deeper empathy with the students in our courses.

Empathy is important to making collaborative writing projects successful because it mitigates finger-pointing. A common complaint about team project is that “slackers” don’t do enough work. An environment that values transparency is likely to reveal to instructors and teammates the reality that everyone works according to their priorities.

Transparency also reveals teammates’ perspectives about meeting deadlines. Many students work to get work off their plate as soon as possible. Some of the same students interpret teammates who are deadline driven as irresponsible. “They waited until the last minute to do their work — it drove me crazy,” is the refrain. Transparency about priorities and preferences helps to reduce anxiety related to teammate expectations. Making expectations transparent does not alleviate all anxiety, but it does improve empathy and makes reasonable a requirement to communicate early and often about progress. Another mantra: “Stuff happens; just say so.”

If “honesty counts,” then students must feel safe in telling teammates when they can realistically finish their tasks — and in telling teammates when their initial commitments turn out to be unrealistic. An environment that supports transparency, therefore has not only to invite honesty but be adaptive to change.

Adaptation

By now many of you may recognize similarities between our environment for CW and the three pillars of Scrum. Our ideas about collaborative writing environments and cross-functional roles for CW teams owe a lot to Scrum, which is a project management framework that we have adapted to the CW classroom.

Adaptation in a CW environment refers to a prevailing expectation that learning should lead to change — not solely on the basis of feedback during peer review of drafts, but from beginning to end of the writing process. We have found that the adaptation principle is an advantage that traditional individual-writing-process models do not afford.

  1. Teams adapt written work based on what they learn about writing during frequent review (the third feature of CW environments, following).
  2. Teams adapt processes based on what they learn about their productivity during team retrospective meetings in which they discuss what’s working, what isn’t working, and how they will change their practices during the next phase of their work together.
  3. Instructors adapt learning materials and classroom practices based on what they learn about student perceptions of project requirements and instructor expectations during frequent review of project increments.

Frequent review

The Scrum practice of presenting small parts of a project for review as opposed to larger iterations is designed to gain multiple perspectives about project direction before teammates invest large amounts of time following potentially unproductive paths.

In a classroom environment, the small parts — or increments — might be titles, phrases, headings, snippets of a video, or a rough website wire frame. Traditional writing process models for individuals typically wait until students have invested large amounts of time producing whole drafts of a paper or a web site, or rough cuts of whole videos before peer or instructor review.

Frequent review of increments takes less time for response from instructors and provides students with more timely direction. Instructors can address comments to all teammates at once instead instead of repeating them for individual students. Frequent review also helps students improve the value of their comments over time through practice.

What does the CW environment look like in practice?

Activities for practicing transparency

For each requirement in your CW project, provide a model that shows how it aligns with learning objectives.

In your current course, identify specific student ideas, traits of student work, or traits of professional models and explain how they align with specific learning objectives.

Show examples of student achievement from past courses and how they align with learning objectives.

Assign team update memos where teammates post tasks they commit to performing, how much time they plan to dedicate to the tasks, and by when they plan to complete them.

Encourage honesty about when teammates will complete tasks. Assign discussions about teammate expectations for communication.

Assign discussions in which teammates share their calendars and preferred work styles (do individuals do work as soon as it’s assigned or do they wait until the last minute?) How do individuals’ preferred work styles affect others on the team?

Activities for practicing adaptation

Assign tasks whose results tell you how students are interpreting your assignments and expectations. Example of a 2-minute writing assignment: “Put requirement X into your own words (paraphrase it). Compare your paraphrases with teammates.” Affirm or redirect teams based on what you learn from their interpretations.

Administer course evaluations periodically throughout the semester and adapt based on what you learn.

Near the end of some class sessions, ask teams to discuss their next high-priority tasks. Affirm or redirect teams based on what you learn.

Periodically assign teams to discuss their productivity: what’s working, what isn’t working, how will they change their practices in order to improve productivity?

After reviewing increments, assign teams to list high-priority tasks for putting to work what they have learned.

Assign teams to present increments to each other, discuss how they align with learning objectives, and make suggestions for adapting increments to make them more valuable to the team’s project.

Activities for practicing frequent review

Show examples of past project work and ask teams to discuss how it could be improved to meet project requirements.

Assign brief but frequent discussions — inside or outside of class — of increments created by teammates and ask students to discuss how the increments meet project requirements.

Assign brief but frequent annotations — inside or outside of class — of assigned readings, teammate drafts, or source materials and ask students to explain to what degree increments meet project requirements.

Assigning each teammate a specific role during peer review enables brief but frequent exchange of ideas. That is, rather than asking each teammate to provide general feedback, align teammate roles with course learning objectives for research, critical thinking, genre/structure, synthesis, and review/editing. That way each teammate can look at the increment through the lens of one learning objective.

In our next post, we detail teammate roles and tasks for collaborative writing.

Joe Moses

Written by

Joe Moses

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

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