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11.3 Collaborating on Academic Writing Projects

Learning Objectives

  1. Understand how cooperative and collaborative learning techniques, with the help of technology, can enhance college-level writing projects.
  2. Learn how to give and receive effective and meaningful feedback.

How do you feel about group projects in your college classes? Are you like many students who resist group projects because you prefer to work alone? Do you know why college-level work often requires collaboration and how that collaborative work might be conducted differently than how it’s done in a K–12 environment?

Different Types of Group Work

You might not think of a typical writing assignment as a group project, but you begin collaborating on a writing assignment the moment you discuss your topic with someone else. From there, you might ask classmates to read your paper and share their opinions or to proofread your work. Some students form study groups to assure they have reviewers for their work and to have a collaborative atmosphere in which to work. These are just a few examples of effective college students voluntarily engaging in collaboration.

Choosing to collaborate is not always left up to you, since some instructors often require it, whether through simple group discussion boardsA feature of course management systems that allows students to post entries in response to discussion questions. or through more complex interactions, such as a semester-long project. Whether or not it starts out as something that’s required, or “part of your grade” for the course, collaboration is something successful college students eventually learn to do on their own.

If your instructor gives you a collaborative writing assignment, don’t assume the worst possible outcome, where one or two people end up doing all the work. Decide and document who will do what and when it will happen. As a group, you are taking on nearly total responsibility for the project when you are involved in a collaborative learningAn educational method that requires groups of students to take nearly complete responsibility for organizing and scheduling their work together. situation. Because of their complexity, collaborative writing projects still tend to be fairly uncommon, but they are becoming increasingly popular ways of developing and testing your collective ability to think, work, and communicate interdependently as part of a team—certainly an essential skill in the workplace.

The Dynamics of Interpersonal Communication

If collaboration is required, making a plan at the beginning of the assignment is essential. Decide if you will meet in person, online, or both. If the level of collaboration is at the reviewing and proofreading level, agree on a date to turn in or post drafts for review and set a clear timeline for completing reviews. For more involved collaborative efforts, such as a joint paper or project, begin by agreeing on a vision for the overall project. Then set up a schedule and split up the work evenly and equally, but with a sense of strategy as well. Figure out each other’s strengths and play to them. Make sure the schedule allows for plenty of time to regroup in case a group member does not meet a deadline.

During group meetings, discuss the direction and scope of the overall project as well as individual components. If any group members are struggling with their parts of the project, keep in mind that the success of all depends on the success of each, so meet to address problems. When group members disagree—and there will almost always be some differences of opinion—talk through the problems with a willingness to compromise while being careful to protect the overall integrity of the assignment. Choose an individual deadline for completion that allows time for all group members to read through the draft and suggest further revisions. If your project includes a presentation, make sure to leave time to plan that as well. Decide if one or more people will present and schedule at least one practice session to assure the group members are happy with the final presentation.

General Group Work Guidelines

  • Make sure the overall plan is clear. A group project will only come together if all group members are working toward the same end product. Before beginning to write, make sure the complete plans are fleshed out and posted in writing on the group website, if one is available. Within the plan, include each member’s responsibilities.
  • Keep an open mind. You will undoubtedly have your ideas, but listen to other ideas and be willing to accept them if they make sense. Be flexible. Don’t insist on doing everything your way. Be tolerant. Hold back from criticizing others’ errors in an insulting way. Feel free to suggest alternatives, but always be polite. If you think someone is criticizing you unfairly or too harshly, let it go. Retaliating can create an ongoing problem that gets in the way of the project’s completion.
  • Be diplomatic. Even if you think a coparticipant has a lousy idea and you are sure you have a better idea, you need to broach the topic very diplomatically. Keep in mind that if you want your opinion to have a fair hearing, you’ll need to present it in a way that is nonoffensive.
  • Pay attention. Make sure you know what others are saying. Ask for clarification when needed. If you are unsure what someone means, restate it in your words and ask if your understanding is correct.
  • Be timely. Don’t make your coparticipants wait for you. As a group, agree to your timing in writing and then do your part to honor the timeline. Allow each person ample time to complete his or her part. Tight schedules often result in missed deadlines.

Managing Consistency of Tone and Effort in Group Projects

Human nature seems to naturally repel suggestions of change from others. It is wise to remember, however, that no one is a perfect writer. So it is in your best interest to welcome and at least consider others’ ideas without being defensive. Guard against taking feedback personally by keeping in mind that the feedback is about the words in your paper, not about you. Also show appreciation for the time your classmate took to review your paper. If you do not completely understand a suggestion from a classmate, keep in mind the “two heads are better than one” concept and take the time to follow up and clarify. In keeping with the reality that it is your paper, in the end, make only the changes with which you agree.

When you review the work of others, keep the spirit of the following “twenty questions” in mind. Note that this is not a simple checklist; the questions are phrased to prevent “yes” or “no” answers. By working through these questions, you will develop a very good understanding about ways to make the writer’s draft better. You’ll probably also come up with some insights about your draft in the process. In fact, you’re welcome to subject your draft to the same review process.

When you have an idea that you think will help the writer, either explain your idea in a comment box or actually change the text to show what you mean. Of course, only change the text if you are using a format that will allow the author to have copies of both his or her original text and your changed version. If you are working with a hard copy, make your notes in the margins. Make sure to explain your ideas clearly and specifically, so they will be most helpful. Do not, for example, note only that a sentence is in the wrong place. Indicate where you think the sentence should be. If a question comes into your mind while you are reading the paper, include the question in the margin.

Twenty Questions for Peer Review

  1. What sort of audience is this writer trying to reach? Is that audience appropriate?
  2. What three adjectives would you use to describe the writer’s personality in the draft?
  3. How well does the draft respond to the assignment?
  4. What is the draft’s purpose (to persuade? to inform? to entertain? something else?) and how well does it accomplish that purpose?
  5. Where is the writer’s thesis? If the thesis is explicit, quote it; if it is implicit, paraphrase it.
  6. What points are presented to support the thesis?
  7. How do these points add value in helping to support the thesis?
  8. How does the title convey the core idea in an interesting way?
  9. How does the paper begin with a hook that grabs your attention? Suggest a different approach.
  10. How effectively does the writer use visuals? How do they add value?
  11. Where else could visuals be used effectively? Suggest specific visuals, if possible.
  12. How are transitions used to help the flow of the writing? Cite the most effective and least effective transitions in the draft.
  13. Is the draft free of errors in punctuation and grammar? If not, suggest three changes. If there are more than three errors, suggest where in this handbook the writer could find assistance.
  14. How varied are the sentence styles and lengths? Give one example each of a short, simple sentence and a long, complex sentence in the draft.
  15. What point of view is used throughout the paper?
  16. How well does the conclusion wrap up the thesis? What else could the conclusion accomplish?
  17. How are subheadings used, if they are used?
  18. What are the strongest points of the draft?
  19. What are the weakest points of the draft?
  20. What else, if anything, is confusing?

Assessing the Quality of Group Projects

Instructors assess group projects differently than individual projects. Logically, instructors attribute an individual assignment’s merits, or lack thereof, completely to the individual. It is not as easy to assess students fairly on what they contributed individually to the merits of a group project, though wikis and course management systemsA web-based learning environment that organizes the work of a course (e.g., Blackboard). are making individual work much easier to trace. Instructors may choose to hold the members of a team accountable for an acceptable overall project. Beyond that, instructors may rely on team members’ input about their group for additional assessment information.

For an in-depth collaborative project, your instructor is likely to ask all students in the group to evaluate their own performance, both as individuals and as part of the larger group. You might be asked to evaluate each individual group member’s contributions as well as the overall group efforts. This evaluation is an opportunity to point out the strong and weak points of your group, not a time to discuss petty disagreements or complain about group plans that did not go your way. Think about how you would feel if group members complained about your choices they did not like, and you can easily see the importance of being flexible, honest, and professional with group evaluations. For a clear understanding of how an instructor will grade a specific collaborative assignment, talk to the instructor.

Key Takeaways

  • Online tools and platforms like course management systems and wikis allow students to collaborate by sharing information and by editing, revising, and publishing their finished work.
  • Collaborative learning approaches are increasingly prevalent in higher education, as colleges attempt to prepare students for the demands of increasingly collaborative work environments.

Exercises

  1. If the writing course in which you are currently enrolled is not using a wiki, write a rationale to your instructor for how the course might benefit from having such a collaborative platform. (Check out two of the most popular wikis for which free educational versions are currently available: http://www.wikispaces.com and http://www.pbworks.com.) Include an evaluative comparison in your proposal and suggest to your class and instructor which would be the best to use for your writing course and why. Make sure you take into account how you would observe the syllabus and assignments currently in place for your course, and consider how they might be adjusted to meet the demands of a more collaborative context.
  2. As part of your proposal, you could set up a free wiki online and create a one-page essay explaining the process of setting up a free wiki. Publish your essay in your wiki and then give the rest of the class and your instructor permission to see your essay. If your writing course is already using a wiki, consider how you would draw up a similar proposal to an instructor in another discipline. For example, how would a history, biology, psychology, business, or nursing course benefit from a wiki?
  3. Choose an essay you have written for a previous assignment in class. Exchange the paper with a classmate. If possible, exchange an electronic version rather than a hard copy. Answer each of the “Twenty Questions for Peer Review” in this section. When necessary, make notes in the margins of the paper (by using Insert Comment if you are working in Word, then resaving the draft before returning it electronically).