Tools like Google Docs and a variety of wikis have spawned an explosion of collaborative writing possibilities for students. However, too often teachers are puzzled and dismayed when the results are less than expected. Questions I often hear from teachers are “How do I know all kids are working?” “How do I keep them from cutting and pasting?” In other words, “How do I assess collaborative writing?” Keep in mind that “wikis” and “collaborative writing” are not synonymous. The former is a tool, and the latter is a process. Many teachers have used wikis for massive collaborative data collection with the entire class participating in a single purpose; while this is a valuable process, it is not collaborative writing. Here are a few tips to ensure success in a true collaborative process
Create an Authentic Audience and Purpose Too often, we as teachers ask students to write or create for no other reason than to have them prove that they can master the skill. The teacher is the only audience. Why not create an activity that other students need to succeed in the course? In an English class, have small groups read Lord of the Flies, and each group read the book through a particular “lens” (Social Darwinism, Biblical Allusions, Freudian Psychology) and publish their interpretations for the rest of the class to read and analyze. A math class could take the same concept solve a particular kind of problem and share their findings. I got this idea from Darren Kuropatwa, who calls it his “Wiki Solutions Manual.” A French class could study regions of France and share those results. The idea is that someone other than the teacher will read the product, and more importantly will rely upon it for success. Also, students become “experts” in a particular field.
Form Small Groups For a collaborative writing task, I would recommend no more than four members per group, with the ideal number being three. The Johnsons and Spencer Kagan are two of the leading experts in Cooperative Learning, and both stress the importance of matching group size to the task. The first reason is that the larger the group, the more complicated the communication becomes. Simply adding one person to a pair triples the lines of communication. The second reason is that the smaller the group, the greater the individual accountability. It’s much easier to “hide” in a group of six than in a group of three.
Develop Precise Learning Targets Prior to the activity, develop a set of specific, measureable learning targets and share them with the students. Ideally you want to have students help develop these as well as the rubric you will use to assess the project. Rick Stiggins has done groundbreaking work in developing learning targets.
Assign SPECIFIC Roles When students are faced with a collaborative task, often their solution is to “divide and conquer.” “Linda, you write the first part, Thomas, you do the second, and I’ll do the third,” is usually what transpires. Unfortunately, Linda often never even reads parts two or three. Instead of a collaborative writing experience, we have a patchwork of individual ideas. Instead of a “quilt” we want a uniform “blanket.” During the first draft, it’s ok to parse out these segments, but to achieve uniform writing, and to expose all students to the entire document, assign revision roles that permeate the entire document. After the draft (and your subsequent comments) Linda can revise the entire document for support, Thomas for organization, and the third student for mechanics. Then the next time around you can assign “format” roles such as “images,” “hyperlinks” and “citations.” The key is that ALL students are responsible for the ENTIRE paper. You can assess students individually that way as well.
Offer Frequent Formative Assessment Stiggins also is an advocate for continual Formative Assessment (Assessment FOR Learning). Begin by setting target dates for steps in the process of the collaborative writing experience. As each date approaches, monitor the progress of the documents and offer suggestions for improvement. Make sure to offer suggestions ONLY on what is being measured for that segment. In other words, you should refrain from noting spelling errors during a brainstorming phase.
Consider Assessing More Than Just Writing As a former English teacher, my emphasis, of course was on evaluating the writing. However, even the NCTE recognizes “text” as more than just words. Consider images as being a requirement for the document. Using hyperlinks correctly can also be a valuable addition. Even embedding video or podcasts may be used to make the project multi dimensional, and as a result, more engaging. Also, this affords a great opportunity to teach ethical use of material and proper citation.
Be a Teacher All wiki tools have a History function, and some can even break down the “lines modified” by users to determine who added what to the document. While these can be handy as a guideline, I recommend that you avoid using these numbers as gospel. If students think you are looking at only the results on the history, two negative byproducts may result. First students will fight over who enters what so they get “credit” for writing it. Second, students will enter the editing mode of the document and leave without making changes, or merely add and delete a period. To discourage this, you need to schedule regular meeting times during class for kids to discuss, face to face, their progress. During that time, you need to be carefully observing their progress to make sure kids are on task. You can keep track of those kids who offer ideas in the process, but may not be doing the typing. Stress to your class that you will not be “nit picking” about who wrote what line, but are more interested in the entire product. The Johnsons offer many suggestions to ensure Individual Accountability.
Plainly stated, Collaborative Writing is difficult work. Assessing it can be just as hard. These tips can help raise standards as well as make the assessment task more manageable.