Grading Hack #2: Collaborative Process Writing
I love a good teaching myth. I’ve ignored them, believed them, and perpetuated them enough to know that they fill in all the cracks of the educational universe. Today, I’m here to debunk – and debunk profusely - the idea that collaborate writing (or really, any collaborative work) does not reap the same rewards for students.
First, a definition of terms. When I say collaborative writing, I am talking about when students create written material in small groups, not edit, revise, or nod and pass. (While that is a valuable step in the collaborative writing process; it’s just not relevant for this post. We’re talking product).
Collaborative writing has increased student growth (best AP scores yet!) and fostered the growth mindset I value as the teacher of a rigorous course. When offering collaborative writing as a solution to grading burnout, however, I usually get responses tied to the aforementioned myth.
To them, I would respond with the research of Carole H. McAllister, author of “Collaborative Writing Groups in the College Classroom.” Her results showed that “collaborative writing groups are efficacious; all students significantly improve their writing; retention rates for group classes are significantly higher than individual classes; and students enjoy writing more in (permanent and changing) group classes” (2005). Her study with college age students proved value on many levels when implementing collaborative writing. Nonetheless, each of these common responses from the nay sayers is grounded in logic and experience, but they are based on misconception. Collaborative writing has been an incredible tool for effective feedback and writing practice in my classroom, but more immediately relevant, it has allowed me to have kids write more for feedback without adding to my already hefty pile. This translated into noticeable student growth (and if that doesn’t convince any nay sayers, I might be talking to the wrong crowd).
Like all good methodologies, this is not my own but stolen from someone else… who stole it from someone else. In an AP training last summer, the presenter suggested the model of collaborative writing I will share with you in response to concerns about the amount of grading required to create growth in student writing. Since this is a blog series on grading efficiently (and feedback), it seems relevant. It certainly seemed relevant to me a year ago because I implemented it the second week of school, and seeing the value in it, continued it throughout the school year. Here’s how it works:
Grouping: Honestly, I’m just going to slowing back out of the room on this one and let the pedogogy experts fight it out. Heterogeneous or homogenous – I think both grouping methods have value. However, I don’t invest the time usually for this process. I randomly group the kids by numbering, games, lining them up, etc. I care more about diverse collaboration than ability level. THAT SAID, I would recognize and support either model – heterogeneous or homogenous – being used in different contexts.
I’m just gonna let other people – who have more knowledge on that matter - fight that battle. Just put your kids in groups of even size.
Task: Assign a writing task, appropriate to your unit design. This can be quite varied as I have had students writing full AP Free Response Questions (FRQ), completing SOAPSTone charts, writing paragraphs, and even just pre-writing for task. Primarily, I find this most appropriate for formative assessment, or process writing. These collaborative writing tasks allow me increased time for feedback, so I often have students try out any major writing task collaboratively before jumping in to the full task. For instance, this last year, I had students write the Chavez AP Lang FRQ collaboratively before they were responsible for the Adams FRQ on their own. It’s was also effectively employed in checking pre-writing before they wrote individually on any topic. These “test runs” set kids off on the right foot when writing individually.
In essence, it works with any form of writing task – which is why it works for immediate implementation.
Process: The process is exactly what you think it is – the group works together to write something. The difference with this methodology is that there are some rules and outcomes that vary.
Benefits: The most obvious benefit of this method for writing is that it cuts your work down significantly. If I have students in groups of 5, then a class of 20 (Ha!) comes down to 4 drafts. With only 4 drafts, I can leave ample, detailed feedback which they can reflect on as a group or I can photocopy for their own reflection. It immediately and effectively cuts back on grading to allow for better feedback. Win.
Beyond the obvious, though, there are many other advantages here. Consider the drafting process. By forcing students to agree on all writing decisions, they are asked to talk through and rationalize all those choices to the rest of the group. It fosters purposeful collaboration, but it also increased metacognition about their writing. This self-awareness about the writing task itself is powerful.
Also, engagement is not a problem. No one wants to be the kids who isn’t keeping up only to be responsible for a weak paper picked at the end. In my practice of this method, students have all been focused on the task, pushing to keep on pace with their group. In AP world, this is great practice for writing under pressure. In all other realms, it is also good practice for monitoring progress of others and actively responding. The bottom line here is that students invest a lot more when there is a little healthy peer pressure to perform.
Additionally, it practices transferring feedback from one task to the next. For instance, if I have a group collaboratively pre-write for an AP Language argument FRQ, it is with the understanding that they will be tasked with doing it themselves. Given this instruction, they pay attention to how those skills practiced with their peers align to those which will be assessed individually. It is subtle practice in skill transfer with a change in task.
In response to collaborative writing nay sayers who worry about assessing the individual, the point is that not all assessment needs to be assessed individually, especially if it is for feedback. Rather, kids relish the chance to get feedback without a gradebook score. Collaborative practice instead hones their skills for when they are assessed individually, on a later task. Consider it like this: why read 100 introduction paragraphs (which you will ultimately read in their final draft of a research paper) when you can read 20-25, re-direct or assess for re-teaching, and get the better results? Process writing like this should have checkpoints for feedback or there will not be growth; we can’t let providing the feedback become a burden eclipsing that need. This collaborative model addresses this.
Finally, the level of critical thinking within these groups will vary. As mentioned, some worry about the high level students taking the lead and silencing their lower ability group mates. This can happen – not surprisingly – if students are not either taught or told to balance the conversation between all members of the group. Furthermore, if that does happen, the lower level students are still following along, getting the tactile practice of writing out the draft. They may not say as much in the discussion, but they are engaged in a process which will bring them closer to proficiency on their own. You might also respond to any imbalance in the groups by adding additional rules. Maybe set a different leader for each body paragraph, or establish norms for how many times each person contributes, or declare that any one who interrupts another must take 5 minutes of silent time. Respond to this group work as you would any other, but in my experience, the assumed problems have not manifested as long as I was present and, as Dave Burgess suggests in Teach Like a Pirate, “immersed” in the activity.
For me, grading has been a roadblock so many times that it pains me to think other teachers feel the same. In implementing effective collaborative writing, some of that strain can be alleviated for the benefit of kids. Ignore the nay sayers and myths about collaborative work, in this case writing, because this works! It eliminates some grading while simultaneously increasing feedback. What could be better than that?