Groups, Groups, and More Groups: Using Groups Throughout the Semester (Part one of two)

Meg Morgan, Department of English

UNC Charlotte

I have been working with students in collaborative writing groups since the mid-1980s, when as a graduate student at Purdue, I worked with four fellow graduate student colleagues to write a research article on − collaboration.  With that experience and many others over the next 35 years or so, I thought I knew everything there was to know about using collaborative writing groups in a technical writing classroom.  Was I wrong! This semester I’m learning that you are never too old or too experienced to learn something new or to make some mistakes in the process.

My Collaborative Writing Plan

This semester, my teaching load was increased from two writing courses to three.  To make things “easier,” I decided to put the students in my two technical writing classes in groups for the whole semester.  I made these additional decisions.

Group of three to five students would be the founding members of their own organization.  At first, I planned to give them an organization, but some sanity intervened, and I used the first two weeks of the semester having them imagine, plan, and write about an organization they created.

I put them in groups based on the same major.  This plan worked for most of the groups in the class, but the class also had majors from across the university. The groups made up of diverse majors had to work harder to create an organization all could get excited about.

I started the semester with documents they would write to me as the user, mostly informing me about the organization and then writing about the purpose of the organization, its long and short-tem goals, how it would be organized, and its stakeholders.

For each project, the groups had to keep a meeting log, and they had to submit the project online. Each group member would receive one grade for the product and a grade for group participation and involvement.  I based this grade on written feedback of each group members’ performance from every member in the group.

Throughout the semester, the tasks would vary, but I designed them to become increasingly difficult.  Some projects would require all members to work on one product; other projects could be divided. Here is the sequence:

1.    A memo to me as the user describing the organization.

2.    An organizational plan that fully describes their organization. In some cases the user of this document was the university and in others, local governments.

3.    A set of writing templates.  Each group must design a logo and design and write a memo, a letter, an email, and a long report.  The groups also must design letterhead and a business card.

4.    A set of promotional materials: a poster, brochure, or bookmark that uses images appropriate to the ethos of the organization.

5.    A set of instructions used to perform a task for the organization.

6.    A website for the organization.

7.    A final portfolio of these materials that also includes each member’s resume and a transmittal document.

What I Learned and Am Learning

We are only half way through the semester, and this has been a steep learning curve for me as well as for my students.  I am teaching only 50 students in these two sections, so I cannot generalize too much, but I have learned a lot about how some students think and act on their thinking in this short timeframe. We all know that some students like to work in groups and some hate it. This fact has been very obvious in this teaching experience.  What has not been very obvious−or what I did not expect−were some of the following:

Students expect to be told what to do. We spend about 30 minutes in each class talking as a whole, discussing the textbook readings, sharing problems, sharing documents that are in the process of being written, and asking questions.  In the first weeks of the semester, I learned that students didn’t read the textbook.  So, I don’t teach from it.  They are responsible for knowing the readings and if they ask questions that are answered in the textbook, I refer them to the chapter.   I want them to take some agency for their learning.

In addition, they constantly ask me if something is “OK”: “Is it OK if we use color in our logo?”  My answer: “This is a group decision.” They want to know how long something “should be.”  My answer: “This is a group decision.” They want to know if it is OK to divide up the tasks.  My answer is the same. (If they have a legitimate question such as what is the difference between a memo and a letter in terms of audience, I answer that question or refer them to the textbook.) My concern on a larger scale with such questions is my students’ inability or reluctance to be assertive and take responsibility for the decisions they make in a group, even when they have three to five brains coming together to make that decision.

Students are incredibly creative when they are given the freedom to be so.   Most of my students are either engineers or software information systems majors; they are smart, focused, and hardworking.  They are also creative in ways I did not expect.  Their logos reflect not only the organization, but also their ability to manipulate online program or images to create new ideas.  In every class I am impressed with what they can do.  I watch them move among themselves, making suggestions; sometimes one student hovers over the computer and the other three or four tell him what to do, pointing at the screen, even drawing on the blackboard or on paper to illustrate what they mean.  Maybe they always do this, but I don’t often see it.

Unlike the above students, my less “techy” students must learn software programs they don’t know.  One group learned a visual design piece of software last week by all sitting around a computer and playing with the various moves they could make to improve their logo.

Some students won’t work in a group, no matter what.  Among 50 students, I have two who are reluctant to work in their groups.  One female student moved from a first group (she asked me to make this move) to a second, and she is still quite unhappy.  Her current group members are two unwilling-to-work male students; she is a hardworking female student.  So, who does all the work in the group? My solution:  pull her out of the group, not only for her sake but to make the male students work. In my “less work” design plan, she is working independently but cannot attend class and meets with me every other week.  On her behalf, she has found a community organizer who wants her to design documents for a women’s shelter. The second student is willing to stay in the group but sits out of the group “circle” and seems to say nothing.  He received poor evaluations from every other group member for the first assignment. I am leaving him in the group.

I am learning that this is not “less work.”  I may not have as many individual projects to read and grade, but as the facilitator for each class, I am managing things I did not expect to take so much time and energy.  I spend hours at my computer reading for each group not only one product but also up to five group member evaluations.  I also did not anticipate that students would be so insecure in groups and so teacher-dependent:  I keep wondering what we might be doing to encourage this dependence.

At the same time, I am learning that students are learning−I am seeing some of them develop as independent thinkers. They don’t ask as many questions now, they make more decisions, they seem more confident working with group members. If I were to do this again next semester, I would make some changes, but overall, I like the creativity and critical thinking this design encourages and even demands.

I am only a mid-semester; I have no ideas what will transpire between now and May.  I am hoping (and working hard) to make things go well, and will continue to push my students to be creative and critical interpersonal thinkers.  After this class, I expect that they will be more confident working in groups in other classes and when they move into the workplace.