The Whys and How-tos for Group Writing in All Content Areas

Using the Writing Process for Communication and Collaboration

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Bennett, Colette. "The Whys and How-tos for Group Writing in All Content Areas." ThoughtCo, Feb. 21, 2017, thoughtco.com/group-writing-in-all-content-areas-4108016. Bennett, Colette. (2017, February 21). The Whys and How-tos for Group Writing in All Content Areas. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/group-writing-in-all-content-areas-4108016 Bennett, Colette. "The Whys and How-tos for Group Writing in All Content Areas." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/group-writing-in-all-content-areas-4108016 (accessed September 22, 2017).
Collaborative writing is a 21st Century Skill students should practice in all content areas. Medioimages/Photodisc/GETTY Images

Teachers in any discipline should consider assigning a collaborative writing assignment, such as a group essay or paper. Here are three practical reasons to plan to use a collaborative writing assignment with students in grades 7-12. 

Reason #1: In preparing students to be college and career ready, it is important to provide exposure to a collaborative process. The skill of collaboration and communication is one of the 21st Century Skills embedded in academic content standards.

  Real world writing is often completed in the form of group writing—an undergraduate college group project, a report for a business, or a newsletter for a non-profit institution. Collaborative writing can result in more ideas or solutions for completing a task.

Reason # 2: Collaborative writing results in fewer products for a teacher to assess. If there are 30 students in a class, and the teacher organizes collaborative writing groups of three students each, the end product will be 10 papers or projects to grade as opposed to 30 papers or projects to grade. 

Reason #3: Research supports collaborative writing. According to Vygostsky’s theory of ZPD (zone of proximal development), when students work with others, there is an opportunity for all learners to work at a level slightly above their usual capacity, as co-operating with others who know a little more can boost achievement.

The Collaborative Writing Process

The most obvious difference between an individual writing assignment and a collaborative or group writing assignment is in the assigning of responsibilities: who will write what?

According to P21's Framework for 21st Century Learning, students engaging in collaborative writing are also practicing the 21st Century skills of communicating clearly if they are given the opportunity to:

  • Articulate thoughts and ideas effectively using oral, written and nonverbal communication skills in a variety of forms and contexts
  • Listen effectively to decipher meaning, including knowledge, values, attitudes and intentions
  • Use communication for a range of purposes (e.g. to inform, instruct, motivate and persuade)
  • Utilize multiple media and technologies, and know how to judge their effectiveness a priori as well as assess their impact
  • Communicate effectively in diverse environments (including multi-lingual)

The following outline will help teachers and then students address the logistics of running a collaborative assignment in which all members of the group have defined responsibilities. This outline can be adapted to be used in groups of various sizes (two to five writers) or to any content area.

The Writing Process

Any collaborative writing process must be taught to students and practiced several times a year with the goal for students to manage the group writing process themselves. 

As in any writing assignment, individual or group, a teacher must clearly articulate the purpose of the assignment (to inform, to explain, to persuade...) The purpose of writing will also mean identifying the target audience. Providing students a rubric for collaborative writing in advance will better help them understand the expectations for the task.

Once purpose and audience have been established, then designing and implementing a collaborative writing paper or essay is not very different than following the five steps of the writing process:

Pre-writing process

  • Students in the group review the assignment and the requirements for the final product or paper;

  • Students in the group brainstorm and share ideas; 

  • Students in the group formulate a draft or working thesis:

    • This is a first attempt at developing a position or assertion;

    • Because the early stages of the writing process are where the group's writers are guided by questions they have (inquiry based learning), the working thesis is not the final thesis statement.

Planning and Logistics

  • Students in the group decide together who will write which parts of the paper. This will require that students collaborate, rather than merely cooperate. Here is the difference:

    • When collaborating, students work together on a single shared goal;

    • When cooperating, students perform together while working on selfish yet common goals.

  • Students in the group document the collaboration plan based on the assignment requirements (Ex: book review, pro/con persuasive paper) and agree upon the plan;

  • Students in the group determine a timeline that outlines deadlines for both individual and group responsibilities;

  • Students in the group determine when work can be done synchronously (in class/in person) or asynchronously (online). With the use of online writing platforms such as Google Docs, these group determinations will help the group share updates and information more effectively.

Management of Research

  • Students in the group draft how the assignment will be managed (Ex: sections, chapters, paragraphs, appendices);

  • Students in the group determine how and where they will find trustworthy and timely source materials (books, articles, newspaper articles, videos, podcasts, websites, interviews or self-created surveys for research on topic);
  • Students in the group determine who will read and process the information;
    • Pro/con evidence should be balanced;
    • Evidence must be cited;
    • Citations must be cataloged;
  • Students in the group analyze the evidence as to how well it supports position;
  • Students in the group determine the best way to include additional evidence (EX: pictures, graphs, tables, and charts.)

Drafting and Writing

  • Individual students keep in mind how the material and individual writing will fit into the paper or product.

  • Students writing together synchronously (in class/in person) or asynchronously (online):

    • Writing as a group is time-consuming; these opportunities should be left to making sure the document is organized to give the reader the impression of one cohesive voice.

    • Student in the group should make sure that the paper or product's content is clear and the writing communicates a single (or in the case of pro/con, a whole) message to the target audience before discussing stylistic changes. 

Revising, Editing, and Proofreading

  • Students in the group review drafted parts of the document before merging into a single document;

  • Students in the group look for a logical flow of ideas. (Note: Teaching students to use transitions is critical to smoothing over individual drafts);

  • Students in the group revise content and structure of the paper;

  • Students in the group proofread paper and check for typos, spelling errors, punctuation problems, formatting issues, and grammatical mistakes. (Note: Reading the paper aloud is an excellent strategy for editing).

Additional Research on Collaborative Writing

Regardless as to the size of the group or the content area classroom, students will manage their writing by following an organizational pattern. This finding is based on the results of a study (1990) conducted by Lisa Ede and Andrea Lunsford that resulted in a book Singular Texts /Plural Authors: Perspectives on Collaborative Writing, According to their work, there are seven noted organizational patterns for collaborative writing. These seven patterns are:

  1. "the team plans and outlines the task, then each writer prepares his/her part and the group compiles the individual parts, and revises the whole document as needed;

  2. "the team plans and outlines the writing task, then one member prepares a draft, the team edits and revises the draft;

  3. "one member of the team plans and writes a draft, the group revises the draft;

  4. "one person plans and writes the draft, then one or more members revises the draft without consulting the original authors;

  5. "the group plans and writes the draft, one or more members revise the draft without consulting the original authors;

  6. "one person assigns the tasks, each member completes the individual task, one person compiles and revises the document;

  7. "one dictates, another transcribes and edits."

Tackling the Downsides to Collaborative Writing

In order to maximize the effectiveness of a collaborative writing assignment, all students in each group must be active participants. Therefore:

  • Instructors need to monitor the progress of each group, provide feedback and assist when necessary.  Initially, this form of monitoring may be more time-consuming than traditional teaching formats, but a teacher can meet with groups more effectively over time than individual students. While the front-loading the collaborative writing assignment takes time, the number of final products is substantially reduced so the grading time is also reduced.
  • A collaborative writing project must be designed in a way so that the final assessment is considered valid, fair and accurate. The final assessment must consider the knowledge and performance of all group members.  Grading complexities can make group assignments difficult for instructors. (See group grading article)
  • Students may sometimes struggle with making decisions in a group setting.There can be additional stress on students because of multiple opinions and writing styles. These must be incorporated into one final product that pleases everyone. 

Conclusion

Preparing students for real-world collaborative experiences is an important goal, and the collaborative writing process can better help teachers meet that goal. The research supports a collaborative approach. Even though the collaborative writing approach may require more time in the set-up and monitoring, the fewer number of papers for teachers to grade is an extra bonus.