TECFA: Writing together
By Giulia Ortoleva (TECFA)
Collaborative writing activities aim at combining the pedagogical effects derived from the activity of writing per se, and the ones associated with the task of learning in a collaborative setting.
Collaborative writing encompasses a wide range of activities:
• learners can co-construct a written text
• cooperate by contributing different sections of the draft
• read and comment constructively the text written by their colleagues.
Technology affordances, and particularly Web 2.0 development, offer the ideal environment to conduct collaborative writing activities, allowing for the collaboration to happen across time and space.
The activity of writing has historically been considered a unique way to learn new information1 and develop ideas, beliefs and knowledge. The organisation and transformation of previously acquired knowledge, as well as the creation of new knowledge are elicited through the cognitive process used during the task.
Different metaphors have been formulated to explain the effect that writing has on learning.
Writing, for example, has been described as a problem-solving process2, carried out using specific procedures such as:
• planning - generating ideas, organising them and setting goals,
• translating - transforming plans into text; and
• revising - adjusting the text produced in order to improve quality.
On the basis of this model, different strategies have been identified in writers:
Knowledge telling: strategy of writing everything the writer knows about a given topic, without paying attention to the structure and organisation of the text.
Knowledge transforming: method of transforming ideas, modifying concepts and creating a hierarchy of information, keeping in mind clarity, plausibility and effectiveness of the text.3
Knowledge crafting: strategy implying that writers adapt their texts to their readers, and on the basis of their characteristics, select the information to present, as well as the way of presenting it.4
More recently, the English researcher David Galbraith5 pointed out that writing activities also represent a knowledge constituting process. While writing, new ideas emerge and elicit the reorganisation of previously acquired concepts. These writing strategies are not considered as mutually exclusive, but placed on a continuum and are interdependent.
The design of writing activities
Even though writing is considered as beneficial to the learning process, there are some conditions that have to be met, in order for the task to be productive:
1) students’ previous knowledge and beliefs should be taken into account,
2) the writing task should encourage students to reflect on their own experiences
3) the task should require the elaboration of new knowledge, rather than the simple creation of a summary or factual report,
4) students should be encouraged to solve practical problems through theoretical knowledge
5) the writing task should be integrated into the school curriculum, with the organisation of relevant sessions going from class discussions to small-group activities.6
The most efficient way to exploit the writing activity for learning purposes is to combine them with oral discussion and reading.7
Collaborative learning (also termed cooperative learning by some authors) comprises a number of different situations in which learners are required to work together on a set of tasks. The scenario is usually quite precise and specifies how the work should be organized, distributed and planned over time8. Collaborative scenarios prompt students to engage in discussion, express what they have understood and gain from others’ perspectives.
The design for collaborative learning activities
Though collaborative learning activities can be a powerful tool for deep learning, its actual effectiveness depends on many factors - ultimately on whether students effectively engage in productive interactions. Two conditions found to be particularly relevant for the success of collaborative learning activities are the following:
• collaboration between peers does not happen spontaneously, but has to be triggered and guided through the design of the activities. Well-designed activities should place students in situations in which they need to interact to complete the task (positive interdependance) and in which the role and responsibility of each member are clearly identified.9
• pedagogical scenarios should not only include collaborative group-learning activities but also individual and collective tasks.10
Different types of collaborative writing activities can be identified:
• learners can be asked to engage in the complex process of collaborative knowledge building and of the co-construction of knowledge. In this type of activity, they are prompted to collaborate from the beginning in the creation of the content required.
• learners are required to provide each other with comments and assessment of their work. Different forms of peer feedback can be implemented. In Peer-comment activities, learners are asked to comment on the work of their colleagues, providing constructive criticism and suggestions. In peer-assessment activities, participants are required to evaluate and rate each other’s performance. Learners may have reservations about peer assessment as they may not appreciate having their work evaluated by a peer. These reservations soon disappear as they gain more experience with this type of assessment11.
Collaborative writing tools
The development of computers and the increased availability of Internet connection have brought about the emergence of a number of tools supporting the collaborative writing process, thanks to the functions of sharing, version tracking and collaborative editing.
It is useful to differentiate between “traditional” Web (Web 1.0) and its more recent development, Web 2.0. The first one provides users with the opportunity of accessing a large amount of information. Of course, internet users can also create web pages of their own, but in a static fashion, which does not really provide opportunities for direct collaboration and communication between the reader and the information provider.
On the other hand, web 2.0 is based on the idea of providing the ability to directly collaborate and share information online, transforming the static web into a more dynamic environment. In this type of web environment the content is not given a priority, but co-constructed and negotiated between the participants. This type of environment is therefore ideal for the conduct of collaborative activities based on writing.
Web 2.0 provides various tools, such as blogs, wikis, forums, and social networks. Wikis represent a common choice for activities aiming at collaborative learning and particularly collaborative writing. See the article dedicated to Wikis.
1 Emig, J. (1977). Writing as a mode of learning. College composition and communication, 28(2), 122-128.
2 Hayes, J. R. and Flower, L. S. (1980). Identifying the organisation of writing process. In L.W. Gregg and E. R. Steinberg (Eds.), Cognitive process in writing (pp. 3-30). Hillsdale, NJ : Erlbaum.
3 Bereiter, C. and Scardamalia, M. (1987). The psychology of written composition. Hillsdale, NJ : Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.
4 Kellogg, R. T. (2008). Training writing skills : A cognitive developmental perspective. Journal of Writing Research, 1(1), 1-26.
5 Galbraith, D. (1999). Writing as a knowledge-constituting process. In D. Galbraith & M. Torrance (Eds.), Knowing what to write. Conceptual process in text production (pp. 137-158). Amsterdam : Amsterdam University Press.
6 Tynjälä, P., Mason, L., and Lonka, K. (2001). Writing as a learning tool : Integrating theory and practice. Studies in writing, vol. 7. Dordrecht, The Netherlands. Kluwer Academic Publisher.
7 Tynjälä, P. (1998) Writing as a tool for constructive learning : Student’s learning experiences during an experiment. Higher Education, 36, 209-230.
8 Dillenbourg, P. (1999). What do you mean by collaborative learning?. In P. Dillenbourg (Ed.) Collaborative learning : Cognitive and computational approaches (pp. 1-19). Oxford : Elsevier.
9 Slavin, R. E. (2011). Instruction Based on Cooperative Learning. In R. E. Mayer & P. A. Alexander (Eds.), Handbook of Research on Learning and Instruction (pp. 344-360). New York: Taylor & Francis.
10 Dillenbourg P. and Fisher, F. (2007). Flexibility in macro-scripts for computer-supported collaborative learning. Journal of Computer Assisted Learning, 23, 1-13.
11 Dochy, F. and McDowell, L. (1997). Assessment as a tool for learning. Studies in Educational Evaluation, 23, 279-298.
Example of a pedagogical scenario
This section presents a scenario from the research conducted by Giulia Ortoleva and Mireille Bétrancourt12, researchers of the lab TECFA – Technologie pour la Formation et l’Apprentissage, of the faculty of Psychology and Educational Sciences of University of Geneva.
Graphic summarising the three sessions of the scenario
The scenario took place in a school for health and social care assistants (ASSC). It was therefore adapted to the educational challenges encountered by teachers and learners involved in alternate school and workplace learning.
The whole activity was conducted over a six week period with an hour and a half session every two weeks. The activity was conducted on a Wiki created for this purpose.
I Session - Writing and peer-feedback
Phase 1: Students are asked to recount one experience encountered in practice related to a specific professional competence. Participants have to write individually on their personal page on the wiki site about this critical situation. In accordance with the critical-incidents technique, students are provided with instructions on how to describe this situation. Three guiding questions are proposed to the students: (1) What happened? (2) How did you react? (3) What were the consequences of this situation?
Phase 2: Every student is asked to comment on two peers’ written productions. In order to avoid the potential difficulties in this phase, precise instructions and prompts are provided, guiding learners in the process of producing constructive criticism, as well as accepting and integrating the suggestions formulated by others. The instructions provided are the following: (1) Formulate questions; (2) Provide comments and suggestions; (3) Report experiences or else reflect on how they would react in a similar situation.
Phase 3: To conclude this session, students are asked to go back to their own page. They are instructed to: (1) Reply to the questions formulated by their colleagues; (2) Consider the comments and suggestions proposed by others and explain their perspective on them; (3) Consider how they think they would react to a similar situation, if re-encountered.
Note: in order to distinguish the text used in the different phases of the activity, students use different colours.
Screenshot of a student’s page after the first session, including the critical incident (text in black), the two peers’ comments (blue and red) and the conclusion (green).
II Session - Group discussion
An oral discussion involving all participants is led by the teacher. The discussion is organised around the students’ themes and aims at finding possible solutions to the critical situations reported by them.
III Session - Final text elaboration
Students are provided with external resources (articles, book sections, video excerpts) presenting interesting insights into the topics which have emerged from their discussions. After reading and watching the material, students reconsider the topic discussed and are encouraged to draw new conclusions about how similar situations could be faced if encountered in the future.
This type of pedagogical instruction is highly flexible and similar scenarios could be implemented in different settings and with learners of all age groups.
Recommendations for practice
• It is important for learners to truly engage in the scenario, as both the individually written productions and the interactions among them depends on how they participate in the activity, writing interesting text, and providing each other with interesting suggestions and ideas.
• Finding the right ways to motivate learners in engaging in such an activity is, therefore, particularly important and will depend on the subject studied and on the type of activities and triggers provided to the learners.
As far as the peer-collaboration is concerned, we identified a series of aspects that would play a role in the effectiveness of this type of activity:
• effective interactions evolved from situations in which students, in the peer-feedback phase, provided concrete suggestions or reported personal experiences in similar situations.
• generic comments, and in particular, questions, were an excellent way of getting into the activity in a progressive manner.
• when faced with concrete new solutions to an issue students were able to come up with new alternatives to their behaviour and complete interactions proved more productive.
• Our experiences confirmed the relevance of the five recommendations for the design of writing activities13.
We consider that all the above mentioned observations should be taken into account when designing a scenario based on computer-supported writing and peer-collaboration activities.
12 Ortoleva, G. and Bétrancourt, M. (2014). Collaborative writing and discussion in vocational education: Effects on learning and self-efficacy beliefs. Journal of Writing Research, 7(1), 95-122
13 Tynjälä, P., Mason, L., and Lonka, K. (2001). Writing as a learning tool : Integrating theory and practice. Studies in writing, vol. 7. Dordrecht, The Netherlands. Kluwer Academic Publisher.