This post is the first in a two-part series on co-authorship from different perspectives. In this first post, we’ll discuss key cognitive and pedagogical considerations in co-writing projects. The second part will both address ways to use writing center sessions as a model for negotiating the co-writing process and reflect on the experience of co-writing this blog.
Ah, the dreaded group project, known for its ubiquity and the frustration it inspires. Few assignments elicit opinions as strong as those which require co-writing, but through this post, we’ll argue that the severity of those opinions—while perhaps not unavoidable—can be softened by recognizing features of co-writing projects.
To go about this task, we have opted to get a little meta in our approach and co-write about co-authorship. Using both external research and the lessons learned from our experience, we hope to shed some light on several considerations to keep in mind when approaching a co-authoring project, whether you are a student, instructor, or potential co-writer.
1. Co-authoring is valuable. No, really!
First, it’s necessary to answer the question on every student’s mind—“Is there even a point to all of this?” Research suggests the answer is yes, and not just because it makes grading easier for a TA.
James Reither and Douglas Vipond found that collaborative writing is a complex social process, and beyond the surface-level act of writing something down, it offers a unique form of “knowledge making,” positioning collaborative texts not as a product, but as a testament to the collaborative process. Unfortunately, despite other research indicating similar values, the average instructor may be hard-pressed to explain why they use group writing projects. For frustrated students, vague discourse on the importance of collaboration may not feel like sufficient justification for these exercises. Thankfully, there are several other reasons to value the practice.
2. The co-authoring process is procedurally different from a solo write.
During the process of writing this blog, we found that co-writing is anything but linear. Even though we chose this project of our own volition, the initial enthusiasm waned, and early meetings resulted in a great deal of work from Kylee and a few stray sentences from Brice. The project moved forward in fits and starts, and it became clear that the effort would be weighted towards planning and revision, with the initial draft quickly becoming an afterthought. Suffice it to say, our anecdotal experience suggests co-writing requires a different set of metacognitive skills, and research agrees.
Helen Dale found that in student co-authoring assignments, the additional input from peers created a kind of feedback loop that eliminated the archetypical brainstorm-draft-edit process. Projects also had more logical structures because it was necessary for co-writers to plan in detail before beginning, simply to maintain coherence. Ultimately, co-writing can be a more extensive and intensive writing process, but it has the potential to transform what ends up on the page.
3. Collaboration succeeds when collaboration is the point.
Louth et al. compared both student scores and attitudes on individual papers and collaborative papers in a college freshman English course, and while they found no statistically significant difference between the scores, there was a markedly positive difference in attitude, with collaborative groups being more satisfied than their individual counterparts. The authors suggest that dissatisfaction arises when collaboration is elevated as a pedagogical value rather than a theoretical one; it works when the focus is on what is gained through the collaborative process.
In the case of this blog project, is the writing inherently better? Not necessarily, but it did push our approach in directions that might otherwise have gone unexplored. In the early stages, we riffed and asked each other questions about possible ways to broach the subject of co-authoring, and we challenged each other’s expectations about the goals and parameters of the project. For example, the initial draft of this post was specifically directed towards instructors planning co-writing assignments, but Kylee wisely pointed out that it was too narrow of a focus to be very helpful, and it negated the relevance of our own co-writing process. By shifting our attention to more general principles, the post opened out into something more accessible for different types of readers.
4. Successful collaboration as a learning process may largely be a matter of personality.
If you’re one of the many individuals who resents collaborative writing, fret not—research indicates that group work will not be universally beneficial or enjoyable for everyone. Utilizing attachment theory, Shiri Lavy studied whether there was a correlation between personality types and performance in group projects. While it’s difficult to say how metacognitively beneficial the practice was, Lavy found that students’ self-reported satisfaction was influenced by their attachment style, with anxious and avoidant students both expressing dissatisfaction with group work compared to individual work, despite performing well. Some people just won’t enjoy collaboration, and that’s okay.
Ultimately, group projects aren’t going anywhere, and while it may seem reductive to point out that co-writing may not be for everyone, recognizing that reality may help reluctant co-authors re-evaluate their approach.
Check back next week for a deep dive into the lessons we learned by co-writing as well as how writing center sessions can model the skills necessary to be effective co-authors.
Dale, Helen. “The Influence of Co-Authoring on the Writing Process.” Journal of Teaching Writing, vol. 15, no. 1, 1996, pp. 65-79, https://journals.iupui.edu/index.php/teachingwriting/article/view/1194/1154.
Lavy, Shiri. “Who Benefits from Group Work in Higher Education? An Attachment Theory Perspective.” Higher Education, vol. 73, no. 2, 2017, pp. 175-187, JSTOR, https://www.jstor.org/stable/26447599.
Louth, Richard, et al. “The Effects of Collaborative Writing Techniques on Freshmen Writing and Attitudes.” The Journal of Experimental Education, vol. 61, no. 3, 1993, pp. 215-224, JSTOR, https://www.jstor.org/stable/20152373.
Reither, James, and Douglas Vipond. “Writing as Collaboration.” College English, vol. 51, no. 8, 1989, pp. 855-867, JSTOR, https://www.jstor.org/stable/378091.