I’m really glad I had my classes work on a collaborative research project to kick off the semester. At times it has seemed like a laborious process that my students were really struggling to grasp, but now that the teaching phase of it is over, I’m feeling better about it.

I just want to make a quick post to help myself remember what worked (and didn’t) about this project. If you have any suggestions, I’d love them because I’m sure I’ll be doing this project again in the future.

What Worked Well

  • Modeling note taking. Even though students were assigned to take notes out of class, it’s evident that most of them did not really understand what this meant. Note taking is so important to research, and I think the three class periods we devoted to note taking is going to be helpful for their future projects.
  • Mixing up groups for every class session. Students seemed to have liked that they were able to meet different members of class. Every day we worked on drafting this project or taking notes, some sort of in-class group activity happened. I like it because it helps me see early on who is stepping into leadership roles and who is taking the backseat, as well as who didn’t do any of the homework and is waiting on the curb.
  • Encouraging radical revision and a lack of consensus. Throughout the process, I’ve tried to emphasizing the idea of having a rough draft and coming together to “get something on paper” but not to have a “perfect” paper or even “consensus.” Disagreement is a fine place to start writing, and I think it encourages the kind of revision I want students to make on their own projects. So even though some of my classes didn’t come to decisions as aptly as they might have, I think the discussion was productive.
  • Explicitly discussing our decision-making. I know that many of my students have never consciously made choices between different options when writing a paper. This project has been a great opportunity for talking about why we are making choices, especially when we are still in the process of making those choices.
  • Being a different kind of teacher. I’ve always had a hands-on, student-centered approach to teaching, but I think this project really forced me to take on a different role to highlight a student-centered classroom. I felt more like a guide, asking questions and writing down the answers, than a director or leader telling students what to do. I liked being a part of the collaborative process because it lead to excellent trouble-shooting and teaching moments. It also prevented my students from seeing me as their audience because I was part author of the project.

What Needs Improving

  • More time! Ideally, I would like another week to work on this project. At points, the work load was just a bit higher than I would have liked. I didn’t want this project to take too much of the semester (it already took the first month of classes!), but some students really struggled to keep up with the reading load and we didn’t always get through all of the activities I had planned for class.
  • Better dealing with student division of labor. Part of this is a little naivete on my part, I can’t lie. I didn’t plain for a system of accountability other than “not letting each other down.” This system did not stop people from coming to class unprepared or from letting one or two people dominate group work or class discussion. In the future, I might create a rubric or peer-review process so that students can discuss this process. Although I don’t like the idea of students grading each other, per se, I do think it’s important for them to be able to let me know (in an appropriate manner) whether or not someone was pulling their weight.
  • Tasking students with finding sources. One problem a few students in class noticed was really beyond our control. Using They Say/I Say, we discussed whether or not fast food is becoming the new tobacco. But none of the readings included in that section addressed the comparison explicitly or even dealt with tobacco at all. This might have been a good place to ask students to find an article or a reading online to contribute, so that we could begin discussing how to conduct good research. But this is minor. I’m sure there will be a newer edition out soon, too, and that may help.

A Few Other Things to Consider

  • Weather and Illness. We’ve been hit with an abnormally harsh winter this year, resulting in two canceled classes in our first week and some other students having to miss class because of their own travel conditions. I’ve also had a lot of students out because of illness. This is especially hard to deal with when it comes to drafting a project in class and working collaboratively. My normal “your-absence-only-affects-your-own-work” philosophy doesn’t necessarily apply here.
  • Students who hate group work. I’ve seen several comments about students that don’t like to work in groups, for various reasons. It also seems like some of those students shut down on the project before we even got started. Realistically, collaboration and group work is going to be a part of their lives regardless of what they do in the future. I can think of zero professions that allow one to truly work as an individual. How do I foster better buy-in there? I don’t think this is a question of offering more ownership (like allowing them to select topics). This is a question of students have bad previous experiences with group projects and transferring it to the class, preventing them from engaging fully.

It’s nice to get some of these thoughts written down. I’m excited to see how students revised and what they come up with. I’m excited to reflect again on what worked well and what didn’t about this project after I have graded the assignments. But overall, this is definitely something I will do again in the future and definitely something I would encourage other writing instructors to adapt and make their own.

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