Collaboration and Ownership in Student Writing

SharingThe potential relationship between collaboration-based pedagogies and social/collaborative online platforms is almost proverbial. At the same time, anyone who’s ever tried to get first-year students to take peer review seriously knows that there is often real resistance to meaningful collaboration. Not insurmountable resistance–but it can be the case that students are uncomfortable sharing their work with their peers, or from a slightly different angle, have a hard time seeing how they would benefit from such sharing.

In that context, there’s an interesting study (via Mike Caulfield) by Ina Blau and Avner Caspi, out of the Open University of Israel, about “Sharing and Collaborating with Google Docs.” Blau and Caspi compare various approaches to co-writing, ranging from outright joint writing (where multiple students could edit or contribute text to a common draft) to situations where peers made suggestions for, but did not directly edit, one another’s drafts.

Blau and Caspi learned two things: first, that in general students felt that collaborating with partners improved the quality of drafts. On the other hand, the students mostly felt that their edits improved other people’s drafts, whereas other people’s edits worsened their own drafts. Blau and Caspi posit that a sense of ownership of the draft was pedagogically useful–that students’ perceptions of the overall quality of their work increased as they felt responsible for it. As a consequence, they conclude that the best way to reap the benefits of collaboration and psychological ownership of writing is to have students make suggestions to one another’s drafts, but not to edit one another’s writing directly. (Blau and Caspi have published another discussion of this study, in which they argue that there’s a kind of “tension” between collaboration and ownership, and that this tension is important to learning.)

My classes generally have different levels of collaboration for different kinds of assignments. In compiling wikified class notes, students all work together on the same page, and edit one another’s work, which makes sense because that assignment is trying to generate a common account of the day’s events, rather than reflect an individual’s take on the class. For more traditional papers, by contrast, I typically have students make recommendations for improvement, rather than having people edit each other’s prose directly. Blogging assignments split the difference, more or less, as the practice of linking/commenting works as a kind of mechanism for improving each other’s thinking.

How do you plan for this tension between collaboration and ownership? Do you have strategies for setting up quality peer collaboration? Suggestions welcome in comments!

Photo by Flickr user Ben Grey / Creative Commons licensed

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