A Pedagogical Ode to Google Docs

Well team, I’ve made it to Easter Break after my first post-sabbatical return to teaching, and if my silence on the blog has been any indication, it’s been busy. The sabbatical was obviously good for thinking about research and book stuff, but what I hadn’t anticipated was that the end of my sabbatical would also push me to reassess the ways that I teach. More specifically, it prompted a reexamination of the preparatory work that I do before seminars, and raised questions about the relationship between the amount of time I spend prepping and the extent to which my students benefit from my prep. Lately, I’ve been doing less prep myself and using various types of Google tools—Docs, Forms, and Sheets, mostly—to make students more responsible for their learning. Here’s how and why:


As I’ve discussed before, I like to make my third-year students lead seminar for about a quarter of our meetings each week. Because I’m teaching only first- and second-year students this term, I’ve been thinking about ways I can prepare them for that responsibility in year 3. To that end, I decided to ask students to use Google Docs to prepare for seminar. Here’s the wording from my syllabus for that ask:

“I want to make sure that when we come together in seminar, we’re talking about the topics that most interest you. Readings for a given week may be challenging, but only because my aim is to ensure that you are adequately trained for year 3, and for entry into the post-graduation world more broadly. Seminars are designed to develop your ability to think, to speak, and to argue in a collegial, respectful, and convincing way. These aims are the reason why I ask students to help us get ready for discussion. Please note that you will need to take steps to participate even during the weeks when you are not discussion leader.

“Each week, one to two students will be responsible for compiling a list of discussion questions before our seminar group meets. In week 1 I will circulate a list of who is responsible, and when. When it is your turn to create discussion prompts, you will need to do the following:

  1. Use Google Drive to create a Google Doc. Change the settings so that anyone with the link can edit it.
  2. Use email to share the link with your seminar group members at least 72 hours before class meets (seminar group emails are listed just below this section).
  3. By Wednesday at 5 P.M., every student in the seminar group, including those not leading discussion, must have entered a question into this document.
  4. By the time class meets, discussion leaders should have grouped the questions thematically into an order that makes sense to them. We will refer to this document in seminar.”

These guidelines have meant that I’ve needed to walk students (especially First Years) through the process of creating and then changing the settings on a Google Doc—but that’s been relatively easy.

The motivation for this exercise came from PhD student Stephanie McKellop, who realized that students were using Google Docs to collaboratively take lecture notes.

I LOVE this idea, and respect students’ desires to have backchannels outside of the official seminar and lecture space. My students have a private Facebook group, of which I’m not a part, and that is A Good Thing. But I also wanted to actively create an online space beyond Blackboard (because Blackboard) where students could think about course content before and after lectures and seminars. Having everyone contribute to the Google Doc before seminar meets is useful because it gives me a sense of what students want to discuss, and how well-prepared they are for the session. I can then either choose to have an informal discussion in which we answer their questions, or I can impose a bit more structure if I sense that they’ve struggled with the set reading.

Essay tutorials

I’m an old fogey who’s yet to master the art of the Doodle Poll (and confession time: I still confuse Doodle and Moodle). When it comes time to meet with students individually to discuss essay outlines, I use Google Sheets to schedule these meetings. Students can then see what spaces are open, and add their names. Here’s an example of what that template looks like. If I have office hours or am teaching on a specific day, I fill in those slots myself with the word “unavailable.” The only caveats are that you need to tell students that they may struggle to edit the Spreadsheet on their phones or tablets, and you need to tell them that they need to have added their names by a certain time the day before, if the next day’s meetings start early and you’re not usually in your office at that time. I like this approach a lot, not only because it cuts down on emails, but also because those “unavailable slots” make transparent the additional work we do teaching and holding office hours.

Mid-semester evaluations

End-of-semester evaluations are great, but I find that it’s more helpful to do evaluations halfway through the semester, too, to take the pulse of the class you’re running. Google Forms have become my go-to in this instance because Google will compile answers for you in a useful way. Here’s a template that I use for my mid-semester evaluations. You’ll note that I ask students to reflect on their own progress as well as evaluate my lecturing and seminar-leading.

Seminars revisited

Sometimes, when looking at the Google Doc that students have created for the seminar, I try to find ways to make it even more useful or helpful to them. So, at key points in the semester we’ve inserted a table into a Google Doc and created a timeline (split students into groups before seminar, and have each group read one chapter of The American Yawp, for example—have a column for decades, a column for year, a column for the important event, and a final column for why the event matters to the purview of your class).

We’ve also used Docs to annotate primary sources. Recently, in my Revolutionary America class, I pasted the text of the American Declaration of Independence and the Haitian Declaration of Independence into a Google Doc. One group had to highlight key parts of the American Declaration of Independence, using the “comment” function to add explanatory notes; another group did the same for the Haitian Declaration of Independence; and the third group had to skim both documents and highlight similarities and differences. The American Declaration group bolded text, the Haitian Declaration group italicized, and the Both group made similar text red and different text green.

The Tl;Dr version of these strategies is that it may seem like I’m doing less prep work, and you know what? I am! But I am OKAY with that because I think students are getting more out of the seminars. And that, in my eyes, is the point of this whole teaching enterprise.

Readers, I’d welcome your thoughts about ways that you use Google Docs to improve your teaching strategies, or suggestions about things that I’m doing that I could do better.

3 responses

  1. So funny, I just implemented some of these strategies this year! This semester on their midterm eval Google Form several students asked to get questions in advance. I wrote them last week, this week I’ll write a few and give the option to add, next week it’s all them! I also used Docs to edit student drafts when I had to conduct office hours remotely. They called me and we both had their paper in front of us. One final use for Docs is if you want to have more computers closed in class. Have one student (on a rotating basis) take notes and share them with the class. That way no one else needs to take notes and they can zero in on conversation. (Ps I TA with Stephanie (@McKellogs)!)

    • Ooh, I like the way you’ve eased them into using Docs. We’re not allowed to read full drafts of students’ essays at my university, but I could totally use that strategy to comment on essay outlines. Thanks!

  2. Pingback: OTR Links 03/30/2017 – doug — off the record


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