One of the things our students have to do is a referenced essay. Over the course of the academic year, they might have to do about five or six of these (e.g. a chemistry essay, a biology essay, generic-EAP type essays).
In previous years, the process of writing such essays was broken down over a series of lessons and students did these individually. My colleagues and I found ourselves repeating the same things over and over and the resulting essays always varied significantly in quality. We would encourage our students to compare their work with one another but they never really did this with any great enthusiasm.
This year, we decided to try out a group writing project. I did a little bit of googling and put together a plan for a 9 week group writing project. The students only have one writing class per week, so this was essentially 9 two hour lessons on the topic. The format of the classes was mostly workshop. I know a lot of teachers work in environments where you might have new students joining the class on a weekly basis, which might make such a group writing project unworkable, but if you did have the same group of students for an extended period (e.g. exam prep classes, summer courses), then a variation of this approach might be worth trying.
These are some of the things that seemed to work well for me:
- Divide students into small groups. Three is a nice number.
- Assign a role to each student. One can be the project manager. Their role is to set goals, deadlines etc. One can be quality control. Their role is to ensure standards are high. They can do this by checking in with other groups. The final student can be secretary. Their role is to make sure the group discussions take place in English and to take notes during the discussions.
- I set the topic for the students. You could let them choose a topic but I wanted to get cracking from the off.
- I created a lesson by lesson overview for the first lesson. This plan showed the aspects of writing that would be covered in each class (e.g. finding sources, bibliographies, topic sentences, introductions, paragraphing, paraphrasing, in text citations, cohesion, proofreading) and a corresponding target for each week (e.g. collection of possible sources, plan, introduction, 1st body paragraph etc.).
- Each time they wrote a section (e.g. introduction, first paragraph), they could send it to me, but only if it had been checked by all other members of the group.
These are some of the positives that have come from doing it:
- The students seem to be thinking a lot more critically about their writing.
- They say things to each other that last year I would have been saying. It is a joy to hear one student telling another to “check the Anglia Ruskin webpage” or that their topic sentence doesn’t match the content of the paragraph. And they seem to listen more when it is a student telling them, rather than me.
- Overall, it improves the atmosphere in the class and grounds abstract ideas like coherence in a tangible piece of work that they are continually working on.
- The standard of work they have produced thus far is good. I’ve seen less plagiarism, less incoherence and tidier looking essays.
- At the very start of the project, we discussed reasons why the project would be helpful as well as possible problems that might come up and how we might deal with them (e.g. students not doing their fair share of work). This was good as it meant they bought it into it a bit more and had a more realistic idea of how it might go.
- There have been a couple of less enthused students who haven’t contributed as much as others. I think this is inevitable. I’ve dealt with it by not really dealing with it. I talk to the project managers and ask them to discuss with their groups how to resolve the issue. Generally, the project manager has ended up becoming a bit more autocratic and simply giving specific tasks and deadlines to the person not carrying their weight.
- It had a nice momentum over the first five weeks. Then we had a break for exams and then a week off. It meant we lost a bit of steam toward the end. Would work best if uninterrupted.
So overall, I’ve found it to be a worthwhile approach and pretty adaptable. I used to teach IELTS classes with rolling enrolment and I think this kind of thing might be workable on a small scale – say over three or four lessons – if the task were a writing part 2 essay. Would be interested to hear if anyone has tried anything like that.
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