December 9th, 2009

Six Tips for Effective Writing Groups

By:

By offering students a supportive group for writing assignments and research projects, students can form strong learning communities and feel less isolated when they see others around them struggling to generate ideas, craft thesis statements, or write creative transitions. Allowing students to develop friendships around writing is one way to help them to see writing—often viewed as a chore to procrastinate until the last minute—in a more positive light.

Based on my experience of using writing groups over several years, here are six tips to help create effective writing groups in your classroom.

  1. Acknowledge students’ busy schedules and design your small groups accordingly. Students often complain that they do not have time for out-of-class work and we know that they are busy with other classes, jobs, and family events. By creating groups that are designed around students’ availability, you avoid hearing at the end of the quarter that the group could never get together. I usually ask for two out-of-class meetings that are a minimum of 30 minutes to give each member of the group a chance to participate in discussion. Students have found this to be a reasonable expectation.
  2. Offer your writing groups suggested activities to give them an idea of what you expect them to accomplish through their writing group meetings. I offer the broad stipulation that students must do something that has to do with writing. This could include watching a movie adaptation of a class text, finding an interview with one of our authors and talking about it together, editing each other’s paper drafts, visiting a local library to look at the writing resources available, etc. I encourage students to get off campus, to have refreshments, and to have fun with one another.
  3. Allow students’ writing groups to be private spaces. I do not ask that students report every moment of their meetings back to me, which means that their writing groups can be a space to talk about my teaching strategies, assessment choices, or the class as a whole in addition to their own writing. Offering students a space to talk through their writing frustrations (even if some of those frustrations are directed at me) has been an important component of my course. These private dialogues create a shared community in the small groups and can also give students more confidence to approach me with questions.
  4. Combine writing groups with other class presentation groups for increased efficiency and community building. When students are already meeting to talk about their writing with one another, working together on group presentations can become an easier task because they know and trust their group members. While this can backfire if you have a dysfunctional group, I have found that students enjoy opportunities to get to know their classmates on a more personal level through working frequently within the same small group. To make sure that students are working with a variety of their peers, mix up in-class work to make sure that writing groups are being split up occasionally.
  5. Facilitate mid-term feedback to see if your writing groups are successful. Checking in with students before the end of the term is an important aspect of writing groups to make sure that groups are running smoothly and to see if students are remembering to meet with one another outside of class. This is also a good time to check in with students to see if they would like to make any changes to ways that the groups will be assessed at the end of the term. If students are struggling to meet out of class, I have used this mid-term feedback as an opportunity to see if I need to create an in-class opportunity for writing groups to meet.
  6. Give students freedom to develop their writing groups into unique learning tools. When I use writing groups, I try to be as “hands off” as possible. I express to students that this is one assignment in which they are almost completely responsible for their learning, so they should shape their writing groups as they see fit. Despite initial skepticism, it never fails that I have students at the end of the term who are surprised by how much they liked their group, how much they learned from their peers, and how much their writing improved.

Gauging Effectiveness
At the end of the term, ask students to briefly reflect on how their writing groups have influenced their writing over the term. If students see positive change, have them explain the impetus for that change. If students see little change, ask them to posit why the writing groups were not successful for them. Also, pay attention to writing group dynamics during in-class activities or before and after class to understand the kinds of relationships that your students are building with one another. Students who joke around with their group before class, choose to sit together, or make weekend plans provide evidence of a learning community that extends beyond your classroom.

Kathryn Linder is a PhD candidate in the Department of Women Studies at The Ohio State University, and a doctoral intern at the University’s Center for the Advancement of Teaching.