Conferencing with Students About Group Writing Assignments

Julie Collins, Biology 151/152

Conferencing with groups of student writers working collaboratively on writing assignments has its own challenges, and there are multiple ways you can ensure that students are motivated to participate in conferences and revise their work afterward.

Special Considerations for Working with Groups

  • Point out collaboration resources. It’s surprising how few students have heard of Google Docs!
  • Have students complete a pre-conference assignment before conferencing with you and their whole group. Note that any differences in their work may show at least two things:
    • If two members come with detailed outlines and the third does not, that’s important to talk about.
    • Learning and communication styles. If members compose outlines in very different styles, it might be worth talking about how the group can collaborate productively so everyone is on the same page.
  • During the conference, use revision activities to help the group practice revision skills. Make sure students do the actual work here and are always taking active notes. You can demonstrate practices first, but have students complete outlines/concept maps/etc. themselves while you help.
  • Have the group use this time to brainstorm a communication plan. How often will the group meet? How will they set goals and divide up the work? Planning like this can help the group avert problems—or at least let you know where things went wrong later on.
  • Help your students plan “next steps” for after the conference. Have them generate a list of 2-5 actionable goals that could be accomplished in one sitting. Examples include “summarize an article,” “reverse outline my Intro,” or “plan the graphs I need to make for my data analysis.”

Pre-Conference Assignment

Ask students to complete a series of short questions that get at the heart of the assignment they are tackling. The following example was designed for students who are working on a meta-analysis for Zoology 152. To successfully complete the project, they need to choose a research topic that is under debate, perform data analyses and generate new conclusions. However, students usually approach the project as a literature review and miss the point of working with data. This worksheet makes the expectations clearer and helps clarify misconceptions about what the assignment is asking for.

Conferencing Worksheet

Please fill this out and bring it with you to our meeting. EACH PERSON should fill out their own.

  • What is the overall research question that your group is asking?
  • What is the sub-question that you will personally focus on?
  • What is the debate in the literature about these questions? What findings conflict with each other?      
  • What metric (specific variable/type of data) are you comparing between studies?
  • Sketch a possible graph that will appear in your results section. Label the axes and make clear what your variables are.

Revision Activities for Conferences with Writing Groups (these make great pre-conference assignments, too!)

Reverse Outline: As the name suggests, this exercise goes from paper to outline, rather than the usual outline to paper. The idea here is for students to reflect more objectively on their own writing, distil the main points from their paragraphs, and get a large-scale look at the logical flow of their paper. This process can help students understand the purpose of individual paragraphs and spot weaknesses in transitions between ideas.

Stress Fracture: Ask students to “fracture” the various aspects of the paper they find stressful: have them write down, in detail, what aspects of the project are intimidating and why. Encourage them to note how these confusions make them feel. Stressful items might be “Research: I don’t know where to find articles! I feel angry that I’ve been asked to do something that seems impossible” or “Methods section: I can’t figure out what passive voice means or where to use it. I’m scared I sound dumb.” Request that students leave white space around or under these stressors, so that during the conference you can address them one by one and fill in plans for how to move forward. Validating student emotional experience and addressing it head-on can be a very helpful way to alleviate performance anxiety, show students you care, and help them more forward.

Concept Map: Instead of creating a linear outline, ask students to write down clusters of ideas and connect them with linking phrases. This activity is useful for any stage in the process, and it can help visual learners.