By Craig Pepin – many thanks to Katheryn Wright and Aziz Fatnassi for feedback and additional tips.
Google Docs is less a pedagogical method, and more 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 notetaking, and many other potential uses. It’s a particularly powerful tool for remote learning, in that you can remotely meet with a student, and both work in the same document simultaneously.
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 the Canvas assignment that the document is addressing. 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. If a student only shares with “view” access, this removes the power of working directly in the document – make your expectations for access clear in your assignment instructions or syllabus.
One thing that makes Google docs so powerful in the remote learning environment 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.
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 button in the upper right corner.
(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.)
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). This website provides some additional details on these approaches. I developed a barebones color-coding system for different types of mistakes, and if there’s interest, the College or a Division could develop a standard color usage which might be really helpful for students from semester to semester.
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. This can be fixed (either by you, if you have edit access, or the student if you don’t), by changing the notification settings to “none”.
One final note – If you have a tablet running Android or iOS, it appears possible to make handwritten notes on a Google Doc, although we haven’t explored that ourselves. Check Tip #4 here if you want to try this.