Written by Laura Hartmann-Villalta
Writing is often defined as an individual activity, and in the classroom, this translates to writing as an individual task or assessment. In reality, student writers are often already engaged in interpersonal communication with peers and instructors that one would consider collaborative; creating a collaborative writing assignment reinforces the community already in place in the classroom.
While collaborative writing can have several definitions, the most common means that collaboration is not limited to pre- or post-writing activities, but rather that students are engaged in collaboration in all stages of writing – from decision-making to drafting to final editing of the text. Think of this as the difference between “co-contributing” to an assignment (like a group presentation that has been divided up and then presented) and “co-constructing” a text.
Assigning a collaborative writing assignment has several advantages for students and one very notable one for instructors: the amount of grading is reduced significantly because one text represents multiple students. Because collaborative writing requires skills that will be necessary in their future workplaces – such as good planning, coordination among group members, problem solving, and frequent communication – this type of assignment can be just as challenging and demanding for students as an individual writing assignment.
What Students Learn in Collaborative Writing (Besides the Assignment’s Content)
When writing collaboratively, students receive an immediate audience reaction from their peers and instant feedback from their group members, which allows students to re-evaluate their content knowledge and the effectiveness of their writing. In collaborative writing, students are accountable not only for their learning, but also for their peers’, which means they must share their expertise and master newly acquired information in a more dynamic way.
As they compose, students must communicate with each other and negotiate choices (and possible dissent) in both digital platforms and in face-to-face communications, all while maintaining a respectful learning environment. These are high expectations, but increasingly demanded even for entry-level employees after graduation, including in academic contexts where the number of co-authored papers is on the rise.
Addressing Common Barriers to Collaborative Writing
From the instructor’s point of view, there are two primary challenges to collaborative writing assignments. One is that the assigned classroom may not physically lend itself to collaboration, with lecture-style seating or not enough space for students to spread out and still hear each other. Consider booking a different room where desks and chairs are mobile, meeting in the Brody Learning Commons, or permitting students to leave the classroom as they discuss.
The second challenge for collaborative writing is often the classroom’s learning environment. According to research, the best collaborative writing experiences for students come from classrooms where collaboration is explicitly taught, modeled, expected, accepted, and supported. Here, instructor guidance is paramount. As this type of writing requires a social and communicative component more than most, the instructor should be prepared to directly address the expectations of collaboration in their discipline, sharing with students guidelines for how to collaborate. Barriers to successful collaborative writing often stem from students who are passive, irresponsible, uncommunicative, or unreliable: anticipating and addressing these issues and outlining clear examples and expectations for students can help quell these tendencies from the start. Another way to address schedule problems – one of the most common obstacles in collaborative writing problems – is to assign collaborative writing earlier in the semester when students’ schedules are not as booked or set.
When students have a successful collaborative writing experience, they often perform at a higher level than they would individually and submit better, more thoughtful work.
This handout for students details how to work collaboratively on every stage of a writing project, including pitfalls to avoid.
This web page has sample documents linked within to help instructors scaffold the collaboration and increase accountability on the part of students, including: a group contract, a collaborative writing plan, meeting plan guides and weekly progress reports, and finally, two documents for group evaluation.
Aimed at engineers and other technical writers, this brief overview of collaborative writing includes several helpful charts and graphs that include how to write collaboratively and different document management tools.
Cited and Recommended Sources
Deveci, Tanju. “Student Perceptions on Collaborative Writing in a Project-Based Course.” Universal Journal of Educational Research, vol. 6, no. 4, Jan. 2018, pp. 721–32. Eric.ed.gov, https://eric.ed.gov/?id=EJ1175391.
Thelwall, Mike, and Nabeil Maflahi, “Research coauthorship 1900–2020: Continuous, universal, and ongoing expansion.” Quantitative Science Studies, vol. 3, no. 2, 2022, pp. 331–344. doi: https://doi.org/10.1162/qss_a_00188