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Tips on using Google Docs in the classroom

 Google Docs is great. It revolutionized my teaching this year and improved my students’ writing. Here’s what I learned — and some tips.

1. All Google Docs, all the way.
Some teachers don’t want to be pushy and therefore allow a hybrid system. They say: “Sure, go ahead, use Microsoft Word if you want to. It’s OK for you to email me your essays.” This is a big mistake. Go big on Google Docs, and don’t let the naysayers get to you.

2. Shared folders, not shared documents.
The typical way that people share on Google Docs is document by document. The better way is to set up a shared folder for each of your students. When the student wants to submit her essay to you, all she needs to do is drag her document into her shared folder, and voilà, you have it.

Why is this better? A few reasons: (1) A shared folder organizes a student’s body of work for the entire class, (2) Students remember to drag their document more often than they remember to share it, (3) It expedites a revision team. This year, my students had an online writing mentor and a peer editor. Share the folder to those people, and they get each essay, too.

3. Insist on naming conventions.
Unless you tell your students how to name their documents, you’ll get a lot of essays titled “Untitled.” Some teachers insist on including period numbers, first and last names, and assignment title. I’m not a stickler for the specific content of a document’s name, but I do make sure my students learn my system, down to the spacing and the colons. Mine was Assignment: FirstName LastName. Even though I thought it was fairly easy, it took nearly five weeks for students to get things perfect, but I never backed down. Precision, after all, is key.

4. Make comments, don’t highlight.
Some teachers use the highlighter tool to identify grammar mistakes and misspellings, or they type directly on the essay using a different font color. I preferred making all my marks by inserting comments. The keyboard shortcut (Ctrl-Alt-M) came in handy, and I found that students liked it when I didn’t physically write on their paper. It was easier for them to manage.

5. The most important part is reflection.
Google Docs is excellent for collaboration and revision, but students don’t improve unless they reflect on how they’ve grown. That’s why it’s crucial to insert into the process time and space for reflection. I had students copy and paste a one-page template at the end of each essay, which served not just as a record of their growth but also as a place for me to grade their final paper. This was helpful but not necessary. After all, you could just have students insert a comment at the end of their paper, to which you could respond.

I hope those tips are helpful. I plan on doing more posts about my experiences using Google Docs this year. More than any other tool, Google Docs transformed teaching and learning in my classroom. 

4 comments

  1. Megan

    Mark, these are great tips! I am definitely planning to roll out shared folders this year – by the time I learned about them last year, it was too late to retrain the students (7th grade). Would you mind sharing the template you have students include at the end of each essay? I’ve been toying with the idea of doing the same and would love to see what you are using.

    • Mark Isero

      Megan, thank you so much for your comment. I’m happy that you’re going to shared folders next year. It was the single most important change I made this year that led to student ownership of Google Docs.

      Here’s the template that students copied and pasted to the end of their essays: http://bit.ly/mywritinggrowth. It’s definitely a work in progress, and I’d love your feedback!

      My students found it helpful, but it didn’t do a good enough job of chronicling their progress, and it wasn’t specific enough in highlighting strengths and weaknesses. If you have ideas, please let me know. For example, would it be possible to use a Google Form?

    • Megan

      (not sure why it won’t let me thread comments further…)

      VERY cool. Your students were so lucky to have writing mentors – what a great experience for them. My main goal with my sevies is to really get them to start self-assessing, so we spend a lot of time with rubrics. I retooled your template to be closer to what we are talking about in my class (http://tinyurl.com/783o5tz). My plan is to read and grade essays exclusively in Google Docs this year (I did all the prereading/editing in Docs last year, but still collected a hard copy final paper), provide comments and the final grade at the bottom of the self-assessment template, and then just hand out a graded rubric for kids to take home (I have to get parent signatures on final essay grades, otherwise I wouldn’t bother). Thanks for the help!

    • Mark Isero

      Your plan sounds good, Megan. I like that you’ll be going completely paperless. Last year, I got close: Their final papers were on hard copy. (We decided that when it was on paper, it was published.)

      Also, helping students to look closely at their own work is crucial, of course. Unfortunately, I couldn’t view your link (insufficient privileges). But I’m sure it’s good, and I’m happy that my template prompted some summer work!

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