Thursday, September 16, 2010

Undergraduate students writing together.

I taught an unusual class in Fall 2009. I had taught a freshman seminar (FIG -- for more information see here) in Fall 2007, and a group of students from that class asked me to teach another class that would be just for them. So I did. It was unusual in several ways. I was seeing a substantial group of students (14 of the original 20) after 2 years of academic development. They were experiencing a class with a group of people all of whom they already knew. And I knew that everyone in the class was there only because they wanted to be.

This last fact was intimidating – I felt that I really had to make the class good. But it also gave me some freedom to experiment; the students, after all, had opted into it knowing what I was going to be like. One experiment I decided to do was to facilitate them writing papers together in pairs.

Why? Mainly I was inspired, as I have been in much of my recent pedagogical practice, by Derek Bok’s Our Underachieving Colleges. Bok describes the experience of Uri Treisman, a calculus instructor at Berkeley, who noticed that his black students were performing much less well than Asian students. After he established that the gap remained even controlling for how well prepared they were, he looked at their study habits. The difference between the black and Asian students was that whereas Asians students worked in groups, thus enabling them to learn from one another and help each other overcome road blocks, the black students all worked solo. When they encountered problems, they could not get help, did not turn in their homework, and fell further behind. So he started encouraging black students to work in designated groups outside of class. “The results were dramatic. The grades of black students improved, their drop-out rate fell substantially; and many more than usual went on to major in science and math”. 

The hunch is just this: that we learn more and better when working together than when working alone. This has been my experience. In the first part of my career I wrote exclusively alone. When I started collaborating with others, about a decade ago, I discovered that I learned more and wrote better than when I wrote alone. My most frequent collaborator (Adam Swift) and I have (in my opinion -- I don't know if he shares it) written better work together than either of us has written alone, because we bring complementary traits to the process. He is the better philosopher and better writer, but a perfectionist who, left to his own devices, restricts himself to saying only what he knows can show to be right. I am whatever the reverse of a perfectionist is, but bolder and more confident –- so I push us forward while he makes sure we get it right.

The unit of real learning in the humanities is not the homework problem, but the paper. I wondered whether encouraging students to collaborate on papers would prompt more learning. When I started collaborating I was, like most academics, already practiced at holding intra-personal conversations about the problems I confront. One part of me proposes a solution, and another part of me picks holes in it – a back and forth continues until both parts are satisfied with the upshot. Voices in my head (my dissertation supervisor, and a number of other influences) contribute to the discussion. Adding a co-author, for me, expands a complex dialogue that is already continuing. But most students are not practiced at such intra-personal conversation – they have not been trained or expected to do it in high school and, frankly, we do not expect them to do it in the early years of college. We rarely tell them that this is how our own process works. And they do not have the experience needed to accumulate assorted, and reliably critical, voices in their heads. The process of co-authorship builds in an interpersonal conversation that, if the students are diligent, enables them to develop the skills needed to produce intra-personal dialogue.

Would students learn more writing together than writing apart? My hunch has been that they would. So, presented with a group of students on whom I felt entitled to experiment I decided to see what would happen. I assigned 4 papers in the class, and required that the students each write at least one of those papers alone. But they were permitted, though not required, to co-author any or all of the other 3 with a chosen collaborator. I gave them the choice both whether, and with whom, to do it, simply because of my experience talking to the business students I teach. Business schools tend to be much more attentive to research on instruction than most of us are in the Humanities, and a great deal of group work is assigned. But many students resent being put into groups in which, frequently, one person slacks off, but gets the grade earned by the work of their colleagues. And many also wish that they had more work that they could feel true ownership of, which they rarely feel for work in an assigned group. Allowing students to choose their partner, and giving them the freedom not to have a partner, seemed like a way of avoiding both those worries.

Now, it must be said, and I did tell my students this, that co-authoring is not less work than solo-authoring. The idea is that you will learn more, not that you will do less. Again, reflecting on my own experience with my most frequent collaborator (admittedly across the Atlantic, and he is a hard taskmaster) I reckon each paper we write together takes more work from each of us than any paper we write separately does.

What were the results like? From the 14 students, 6 chose to co-author regularly (so, 3 co-authored papers each time). The co-authoring students were, on average, the more confident students. The quality of papers was pretty high overall. Were the co-authored papers better on average? No. But I think each of them was better than the individual student produced when writing alone. One particular assignment, which had a very detailed prompt requiring the authors to explain what principles they would use to guide their allocation of limited educational resources among students with varying needs, and why, triggered much better papers from the co-authors than I think they could have managed alone, because the co-authoring process forced them into long dialogues in which they explored and challenged one another’s intuitions about the right way to approach the issue. The papers bore the mark of co-authorship, not because the voice was inconsistent, but because the detailed exploration of the conceptual space was more comprehensive than most students can manage alone.

I’ve subsequently allowed students in a large lecture course to co-author, with similar results – relatively low uptake, from students who are confident both in their own ability and in their choice of partner, and, as might be expected from such students, papers which reveal deeper and more comprehensive thinking than each would have done alone.

This semester I am teaching a freshman seminar again. I’ve decided to experiment this time with requiring that one paper be co-authored, and assigning students to one another for the task. I shall ask them to write a short paragraph, honestly assessing the contribution each made to the process, so that they are pressed to reflect on how intellectual labor is divided, and ask each to write a paragraph on how the writing process was different from the process they experience when writing alone.


  1. Do you think co-authoring would only be good for students who are fairly competent at writing papers solo? Or could it work even for groups of students whose writing skills are shaky?

    (I've never co-written a paper myself, so I'm not really sure how it works to be honest.)

  2. For what its worth I think that it is safest for students who are already pretty competent to do it. My guess is that it could work pretty well with students who are still shaky, but only with considerable support from instructors, and a willingness to intervene to save things if they go wrong.

  3. Harry, that sounds like fun. One question I have: What sort of guidance or 'tasking' do you give the students who collaborate on their writing? In other words, what are the specific expectations you give them as for what they're supposed to do? Like Anon, I suspect that for this kind of collaboration to work, students need to bring some sophistication to the writing process. And when I've had students do writing in groups, the problems arise from students just not having an idea as to what a quality paper looks like and how to produce one. They give each other vacuously positive feedback: "Great paper! Just work a little bit on your intro!" The Dunning-Kruger effect at work, I'd say. So what do you tell them as far as the parameters, goals, etc. of this kind of collaboration?


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