Collaborative Learning:

Definitions, Benefits, Applications, and Dangers

in the Writing Center

By Nancy Annett


Tutors in the writing center have many choices. Should they be directive or facilitative in their feedback to the students? Do they want to begin the session with small talk or get right to work? Should they help the students with grammar and spelling, or point them to a stylebook and dictionary? The choices that tutors make in regard to these and other questions will shape the form and outcome of the tutoring session. One of the most important decisions a tutor must make is deciding upon which role to play in the tutoring process. A tutor can be a coach, a friend, a commentator, an expert, an observer, or many other roles as well. The writing center tutor that can be of the most help to a student, however, is one who jumps into the role of a collaborator. To illustrate that this is true, this essay will answer four questions: what is collaborative learning, how does collaborative learning benefit writers, how can tutors in the writing center use collaborative learning, and what are the potential problems associated with collaborative learning?

What is collaborative learning?

Before one can make a judgment on the merits of collaborative learning, it is important to understand exactly what collaborative learning is. According to Kenneth Bruffee in his essay "Collaborative Learning and the `Conversation of Mankind,'" the idea of collaborative learning came into being thanks to the efforts of British teachers and researchers in the 1950s and 1960s. After studying the interaction of medical students with their teaching physician, researcher M.L.J. Abercrombie concluded that the medical students who learned to make a diagnosis as a group "acquired good medical judgment faster than individuals working alone" (Bruffee 85). Bruffee also states that his first encounter with the dogma of collaborative learning was when he encountered the findings of a group of researchers who thought that collaborative learning stemmed from an attack against authoritarian teaching styles (85).

Our interest, however, lies neither with collaboration in relation to politics or in regard to medical students. Though these may be the areas where discussion of collaboration first emerged, it is more important to understand how the idea of collaborative learning became connected to tutoring. During the 1970s, says Bruffee, college professors became increasingly alarmed that students seemed to be having difficulty with the transition into writing at the college-level. Researchers looking into this problem decided that the help being offered to students was too similar to classroom learning. They needed "not an extension of but an alternative to traditional classroom teaching" (Bruffee 86). Though collaborative learning may share some characteristics of traditional classroom teaching, such as the tutor possessing more knowledge about writing than the student, collaboration means that both the student and the tutor provide input into and take insights out of the tutoring session. In the traditional classroom, there is no mandate suggesting that a teacher will learn from his students. But this mandate is an integral part of collaborative learning.

But this discussion does not explain how collaborative learning actually works. After researching the workings of conversation, Bruffee contended that thought is internalized conversation. Thus, these two processes take place in a similar fashion (Bruffee 87). He says, "To think well as individuals we must learn to think well collectively -- that is, we must learn to converse well" (Bruffee 88). When people collaborate, they need to converse to share their ideas. The more they converse, the more they sharpen their thinking skills.

Writing and talking are unavoidably connected. When people write, they are putting their thoughts onto paper. If thought is just conversation internalized, then writing is little more than putting that conversation onto paper (Bruffee 88). Collaborative learning provides a social context where students can practice conversation. This is equivalent to practicing thinking, and as we all know, the more we practice, the better our performance. The more one converses and collaborates, the more ammunition one acquires to fight in the struggle of writing.

Make no mistake, though -- collaborative learning does not just "happen" when a student walks into the writing center and starts talking with a tutor. Andrea Lunsford, a proponent of collaborative learning, thinks that collaboration can only be successful if the collaborative environment and tasks "demand collaboration" (39). Lunsford notes that students, tutors, and teachers must devote themselves to the idea of collaboration if it is to work.

In her article, "Collaboration, Control, and the Idea of a Writing Center," Lunsford proposes that knowledge is not outside a person, but that knowledge is created through using language in a social context (37). Like Bruffee, Lunsford sees knowledge resulting from conversation, and conversation is at the heart of collaboration. Lunsford describes three different types of writing centers: one that views knowledge as individually derived and thus helps students build individual skills, one that views knowledge as residing inside that student and thus attempts to extract that knowledge, and one that is a center for collaboration, where interaction between student and tutor is paramount (37 - 38, 41). Lunsford asserts that the third center is best equipped to aid students because the authority to attain knowledge is not vested in the student or the tutor, but in the team (41). Only as a team can the two work in a social context that facilitates the growth of knowledge, which therefore improves writing.

How does collaborative learning benefit writers?

From the aforementioned information, a general definition of collaboration may be given as two individuals conversing in order to obtain a mutual benefit through exchange of individual ideas and the production of shared knowledge. So, now that there is an established definition as to what collaborative learning is and some of the tools that are required to make use of it, it is important to determine how and why collaborative learning offers a benefit to students. In the article, "Collaboration and Ethics in Writing Center Pedagogy," Irene Clark asks a very important question: "Where did we acquire our own style in the first place?" (93). Though students may think that they develop their own particular way of composing, Clark says that no one can own a particular segment of writing (93).

L.S. Vygotsky conducted research that relates to the aforementioned question. He looked at the relationship between development and learning in children and found that the most important learning takes place at the "zone of proximal development" (Clark 92). This zone is defined as `"the distance between the actual developmental level as determined by independent problem solving and the level of potential development as determined through problem solving under adult guidance or in collaboration with more capable peers"' (Clark 92). Where did a person acquire the bits and pieces of writing that make up his or her style? From parents, peers, teachers, friends, from anyone who knows a little bit more about a subject that the student has not quite mastered. Vygotsky's assertion states that measuring what children can do with assistance may be more indicative of their development than measuring what they can do independently (Clark 92). But it is not just children who learn. All students are learners -- if they possessed all the knowledge they needed, they would not be students. As such is the case, Vygotsky's theory actually applies not only to child learners, but to all students. This includes the writers who walk into the writing center.

Collaboration is so helpful, in fact, that Lunsford found that it is the norm in many professions, including engineering, chemistry, psychology, modern language, services management, international city management, and technical communication (37). According to a recent Labor Department report, one of the most important skills for laborers in the 1990s will be knowing how to work with people who are different from one's self (Lunsford 41). Besides the fact that collaborative learning is a useful tool, it seems that students ought to master it to prepare for the workplace.

Clark, too, agrees that collaboration is the norm among academics. She says she solicited advice about her article from a colleague and notes that her friends in the social sciences "assist one another even more regularly, suggesting sources, trading drafts, rephrasing and deleting sentences, polishing style" (Clark 88). This does not mean that a tutor should be an editor for a student's paper. However, if the tutor and student who collaborate view one another as colleagues, then they will give and take from the tutoring session in an equal manner. When a new employee starts at a company, he learns from the more experienced employees. When a writer starts to write at the post-secondary level, he learns from his writing tutor. The student writer is at a zone of proximal development in his life -- learning to write for a more sophisticated group of professors is a subject he has yet to master. He needs a little collaborative assistance from the tutor.

The use of collaborative learning can provide multiple benefits. Lunsford states that collaboration does the following: aids in problem finding and solving, in learning abstracts, in transfer and assimilation of knowledge; fosters interdisciplinary thinking; leads to sharper thinking and deeper understanding of others; promotes excellence; engages the whole student and encourages active learning; combines reading, talking, writing, and thinking; and allows for practice in synthetic and analytic skills (38 - 39). It would be a challenge to reap all of these benefits from individual learning. Do you think you would learn more through sitting by yourself and memorizing the pros and cons of free speech, or through a discussion with a peer where you both add to the discussion and you both take from it? The second option appears more beneficial. To quote Hannah Arendt, "For excellence, the presence of others is always required" (Lunsford 39).

How can tutors in the writing center use collaborative learning?

There are many ways in which collaborative learning helps the student. But, specifically, how can the use of collaborative writing in the writing center make for a better writer? Tutors must know when it is appropriate to use collaboration. As was stated earlier, both the tutor and the student must be willing participants in the process. A student who just wants her paper done for her or a tutor who think he has all the answers could not engage in a successful session of collaboration. John Trimbur notes that tutoring is like a "balancing act," for tutors must know into which role they should jump, whether they should act like an expert or a co-learner (Clark 91). A student who knows next to nothing about organizing a thesis paragraph would need an expert; a student who has a thesis paragraph but is not sure if it represents the ideas of his paper would need a co-learner or a collaborator.

When students work collaboratively, they do not edit, write, or proofread -- they converse. They converse in order to answer questions and reach a consensus. They converse in order to practice communication in a particular academic train of thought (Bruffee 91). Once again, conversation is a method to obtain knowledge. If a tutor and writer are collaborating, then the student should be learning from the tutor and from the process of discussion itself. Bruffee contends that people "establish knowledge or justify belief collaboratively by challenging each other's biases and presuppositions" (92). It is this process of conversing and negotiating that helps that writer. Though the tutor is an integral part of this mix, the student is really learning how to help herself. The tutor can only engage the writer in meaningful conversation to the same level of energy and enthusiasm that the writer places into the session. This is collaboration.

In my own personal quest to become a writing tutor, I have actually been in the position of both student and tutor. My supervisor, Beth, is my tutor. Though we have both undergone training in the writing tutors program and share the same basic assumptions about writing, she has more experience in this area than do I. But our process of learning is certainly collaborative. Though she is the more experienced writing tutor and I have learned a great deal from her, I feel as if the information that I contribute to our discussions is often new to her. The observations that we make individually add to our shared storehouse of knowledge.

At the same time, however, when we work with a student, I am the tutor, since I have more writing knowledge than does the student. And on several occasions, I have found myself engaging in collaborative writing with the students who come into the writing center. For example, Mike, a student taking English 105, ventured into the writing center and asked for help with his paper about a serial killer. He read the paper out loud to Beth and me, and we gave him both positive and negative feedback. One problem that we all noticed concerned the conclusion. It brought too many new ideas into the paper. We discussed the content of the paper and decided that the conclusion would be more beneficial to the reader if it was a summary and left the reader with only one open-ended question to ponder. I thought of an ideal question, and I shared it with Mike. He liked it, and my catalyst sparked several new ideas for him. The end product was a combination of both of our ideas. As is evident, we generated much more knowledge in this situation from our collaboration than we could produce if I had just told Mike what to do, or if I had withheld my idea because I thought he should be doing all of the work. When it came to conclusions, Mike lingered at his zone of proximal development. My guidance and inspiration was just enough of a nudge to help him emerge from that stage.

I also engaged in collaborative learning in the writing center with Linda, a continuing studies student working on a history paper. Linda, Beth, and I had a conversation about the history of the architecture of government buildings in the United States -- the topic of Linda's paper. Linda shared exciting information about Thomas Jefferson and French architects, and though Beth and I had limited information in this area, we were able to share some organizational strategies and research techniques with which we were more familiar. Linda asked us whether or not she should limit her topic to only European architecture, or if she should include architecture from other regions. I suggested that she include the architecture from other areas if it had a great impact on the European buildings she discussed. Linda agreed that this was a useful idea. The important idea to note here is that Beth and I were learning from Linda, just as she was learning from us. This two-way street is necessary in collaborative learning. However, it is important that tutors avoid imposing their writing style on the student. This is when they cross into unethical waters.

What are the potential problems of collaborative learning?

Though collaborative learning has many positive aspects and can be of great use in the writing center, there can be potential problems with this technique. Some scholars still cling to the idea that learning must be an individual process. Clark contests that writing has always been seen as a solitary activity. According to the humanities tradition, form, style, and content are the essence of a text. Thus, students should work alone. Since "no one ever hears of a muse inspiring groups of two or three," Clark thinks that administrators may be suspicious of collaborative learning (90). If professors view collaboration as cheating rather that as a social collection of knowledge, then they might be apt to mistrust the technique. But true collaborative learning is not cheating because both parties must be open to the idea of shared conversation and both must participate equally.

Overconcern with plagiarism becomes most troublesome when it interferes with learning. "Writing centers concerned with avoiding charges of plagiarism and with self-justification in general have generated policies, which, in some instances, may actually be counterproductive to student learning" (Clark 89). If tutors preoccupy themselves with avoiding plagiarism and being unethical, this detracts from the collaborative environment. A collaborative conversation ought to be flexible and travel wherever the collaborators take it (Clark 91). Unnecessary concern with plagiarism is like the border police, stopping the adventure if the adventurers cross into unauthorized territory. Why should the tutor and student withhold information from one another? Just think -- if researchers studying cancer kept all of their knowledge from each other, no one would ever come any closer to discovering a cure. Neither should writing collaborators withhold information. Knowledge is most beneficial when shared.

The Bedford Guide for Writing Tutors warns of possible situations where a tutor may be tempted to cross the ethical line. A tutor should be wary of lazy or unsure students; if tutors find themselves wanting to revise too much of a poor paper, it is best for them to put their pencils away ( Ryan 1, 22). Lazy or unsure students -- or any student who is not committed to improving his or her own paper -- cannot take an active role in the collaborative process. In dealing with these students, a tutor has an additional task, in that he must also try to motivate the student to work hard. Only then can collaborative writing be successful.

Remember, also, that a co-learner or student must share the same basic assumptions about writing as does the tutor. Therefore, if the student makes the same mistake over and over again, the collaborators clearly do not share that assumption about writing. Say, for example, that a tutor encounters a paper that contains no transitions. Since tutor and student are not at the same basic level in regard to transitions, the tutor must step out of the collaborative role and become an informant for a moment. He or she should explain how to create a transition and perhaps do one for the student, but the tutor should certainly not help the student with all of them. This would be unethical. A collaborator must know when to be an informant. An informant must know not to be an editor. Like Stephen North says, as tutors, our goal is to make the students with whom we work better writers, not to make better papers (27).

If a student cannot provide the necessary elements of collaboration, then the writing tutor must seek an alternative role. Judith Powers, who has studied the different needs of ESL students, thinks ESL students may not possess these elements. She says that since collaborative learning and writing depend so heavily on basic shared assumptions or patterns, it may not work with ESL students (98). Instead of a collaborator, Powers suggests that tutors act as "cultural informants" (98). This is one instance of a balancing act -- the tutor must recognize that collaboration is not the desired method. To better aid ESL students, a tutor may want to tell him or her exactly what the audience, the professor, will look for in the writing (Powers 101). As ESL students become more culturally informed, they will have more success as participants in collaborative learning.

Molly Cage, a writing tutor, says she cannot think of an instance where she felt inclined to write too much for a student. If it seems that a student is not putting any effort into the paper, then Molly says she does not feel the need to put forth effort either. Collaboration is only successful when all parties involved devote themselves to the task.

When involved with collaborative writing, I attempt to take on the role of North's participant observer. As such a tutor, I should be involved with the creation of ideas, but not in the ideas themselves. The ideas in the paper may include some of my input, but only as a by-product of our conversation. This is the role for which a collaborating tutor should aspire. Was I being unethical when I offered Mike an idea for improving his conclusion or gave Linda a suggestion for limiting her scope? No, I was part of the process of writing and the development of ideas and knowledge, but not part of the actual essays. I was one side of a conversation and the students were the other. Even if I made comments about mistakes in spelling or punctuation, they are part of the proofreading process. It is in these writing processes that writing tutors have a right to intrude. Tutors can measure their success in terms of changes in the writer -- the paper itself is less important (North 29).

What should tutors do if they attempt the act of collaboration and it fails miserably? First, as Steve Sherwood says, "failure is a key to our growth as tutors and writing center professionals" (50). Do not expect to be a perfect tutor the first time -- just as students learn to write tutors learn to help them write. Second, a tutor should consider whether the right tools were present for collaboration. Tutor and student should share the same key ideas about writing and should both be active participants in the session. Third, a tutor should think about whether or not another role might have been more appropriate for the particular session. Perhaps the student was anxious and wanted a friend to listen to some concerns, or was unsure and needed a coach to issue writing strategies. These are all important matters to consider. But, if the situation is conducive to collaboration, try to collaborate. It benefits the students, it benefits the tutor, and it benefits society because the teamwork creates knowledge.

Works Cited

Bruffee, Kenneth A. "Collaborative Learning and the Conversation of Mankind." Composition in Four Keys. Mark Wiley, Barbara Gleason, and Lousie Wetherbee Phelps. California: Mayfield Publishing Company, 1996. 84 - 97.

Clark, Irene Lurkis. "Collaboration and Ethics in Writing Center Pedagogy." The St. Martin's Sourcebook for Writing Tutors. Ed. Christina Murphy and Steve Sherwood. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1995. 88 - 96.

Lunsford, Andrea. "Collaboration, Control, and the Idea of a Writing Center." The St. Martin's Sourcebook for Writing Tutors. Ed. Christina Murphy and Steve Sherwood. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1995. 36 - 42.

North, Stephen M. "The Idea of a Writing Center." The St. Martin's Sourcebook for Writing Tutors. Ed. Christina Murphy and Steve Sherwood. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1995. 22 - 36.

Powers, Judith K. "Rethinking Writing Center Conferencing Strategies for the ESL Writer." The St. Martin's Sourcebook for Writing Tutors. Ed. Christina Murphy and Steve Sherwood. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1995. 96 - 103.

Ryan, Leigh. The Bedford Guide for Writing Tutors. 2nd ed. Boston: Bedford Books, 1998.
Sherwood, Steve. "Apprenticed to Failure: Learning from the Students We Can't Help." The Writing Center Journal. 17 (1996): 49 - 57.


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