How can we encourage students to work together to produce a successful essay? Perhaps by attending to other aspects of the writing class, we accidentally create the ideal circumstances for collaboration to occur.
I was teaching a four-week writing course to intermediate level students. On the final day I needed them to work on a self-directed task so I could take each student aside to discuss their final grade and conference about the class. So I split them into groups of three and had them, collaboratively, write an essay in response to an IELTS prompt. The results were good! Clear, cohesive writing, responding appropriately to the prompt, and discussing a range of ideas. And the handwritten texts showed clear evidence of multiple revisions – crossing out, erasing – which suggested that much discussion had taken place.
Why so good? Collaboration had never been an explicit aim of the class, and this activity wasn’t being graded. I think a number of features of the previous four weeks laid the groundwork for collaboration.
- Happy class. We’d had a lot of fun as I’d really made an effort to run a class that was not just individually completing reading, writing and grammar activities. Most days we started with a warmer, and the best ones got them out of their seats. And as it was a smallish (maximum 16, usually fewer), closed class the students really got to know each other. The fact that it was a multinational school with a strict English-only policy helped. For a writing class there was lots discussion; whole class, groups, and pairs.
- Lots of revision. Students wrote one text per week (letter, email, essay, process description), and revised it four times, based on targeted feedback from me. They’d got used to the idea that writing won’t be perfect first time, which is so important for the collaborative process. And they’d been encouraged to turn to their classmates for help when they got stuck, rather than asking the teacher straight off.
- Familiarity with the genre. They’d already spent a week writing an essay, although in fact most students only completed a single paragraph of a larger essay, given the time constraints of the course (10 hours a week). So there was already shared knowledge in the class about the generic requirements of an essay which minimised any disagreements over structure, formality etc.
No doubt there were other contributing features too (sheer chance?) but overall I think these things helped to reduce the risk inherent in collaboration. After all, laying yourself open to possible criticism and correction by peers is a risky activity. But rapport, revision practice, and genre knowledge may have helped to reduce the risk and lead to a successful outcome.