By Craig Pepin (with many thanks to Katheryn Wright and Aziz Fatnassi for feedback and additional tips) with Liz Allen-Pennebaker, and edited by Caroline Toy
Google Docs is a powerful tool for providing feedback and tracking revisions electronically in student writing. It also works exceptionally well for collaborative documents including group projects, collective note-taking, and many other potential uses. It is particularly useful when working with students on iterative assignments.
Instead of receiving a standalone MS Word document or a hard copy, ask your students to share their Google Doc with you. This can be done through email, or you can have students submit a link through a Canvas assignment. If a student only shares with “view” access, you will not be able to do many of the things suggested below, so make your expectations for access clear in your assignment instructions or syllabus. We suggest asking students to share with “edit” access.
One thing that makes Google Docs especially powerful in virtual or flex-hybrid learning environments is that it allows you to collaboratively edit the same document while socially distanced. As Aziz puts it, “This way the student can see how I go through different versions of [a] sentence, and end up with the final product.” Katheryn also uses comments to initiate conversations with the students. Want to alert students that you’re expecting a response? Add their email address, with a “@” sign at the beginning (such as “@email@example.com”) and they will get an email when you post the comment.
You can also use comments to lead a Q&A with your student(s), guiding them to think through your feedback.
Often Google Docs will give you an email alert when a student resolves one of your comments. You may like this feature but it can easily get out of hand and clog up your email inbox. You can change your notification settings for Google Drive items (including Docs), but be aware that this will change notifications for all the files you access, and cannot be controlled for an individual Doc.
(If you’re unfamiliar, here’s the basics of how to add comments in Google Docs. You can also use the commenting feature in many other Google Suite products such as Slides and Sheets.)
Using Version History
Another useful feature is that anyone with access to the document can review the version history. This allows you to see what changes have been made to the document. Conveniently, it also allows you to see when the changes were made, giving you some insight into the students’ work processes. Version history does not show the comments, but all comments (including ones that have been resolved by the author) are also available for review using the Comments icon in the upper right corner.
Working in the Text
You can also provide feedback directly in the document text. Students often share documents in “edit mode”, which allows you to directly make permanent edits, but many instructors prefer to use the suggesting mode. In this mode, anything you type in the body of the document is highlighted for the other reader in a different color, and they have the option of accepting or rejecting the suggestion. This gives the student final say in any suggestions, reinforcing that this is their writing.
One way to encourage student learning is to highlight spelling or grammatical mistakes, and not to correct them in the text itself, but rather to draw students’ attention to it and have them figure out how to fix the error. For common grammatical errors, you can avoid typing out explanations by instead inserting links in the comments to commonly used writing support websites such as Purdue’s OWL (Online Writing Lab). Craig developed a bare-bones color-coding system for different types of mistakes:
Be aware that this strategy may not work for all students, since color-coding may not be accessible to people with visual disabilities (including blindness, low vision, and colorblindness).