Encouraging Class Participation with Google Docs

Graphic comparing Google Docs and Enterprise 2.0 platforms


Rachel Mazique

Image Credit: 

Salman. "Google Docs VS Microsoft Office Web Apps." Techtoggle. 15 July 2009. Web. Sept. 30 2012.

Classroom dynamics can vary widely from one group of students to the next. This fact has really struck home now that I’m teaching two sessions of Rhetoric and Writing: “Disability in Pop Culture.” I walk into both classes with the same lesson plans, with (one of) the same interpreters, and with the same kinds of technology available. Many variables are different; different buildings, different classroom space (in terms of size), one interpreter is different, different days, different time of day (although both take place in the afternoon).

However, the biggest difference is the group of students themselves. Both classes have a range of upper classmen with a few sophomores. One class has a good number of journalism majors, but both classes have students with a wide range of majors and educational backgrounds.

Because I assess students using The Learning Record, I know from their background information (interview and reflection), that many students in one class prefer to listen rather than speak when learning new ideas or grappling with new concepts. In the class that took about four weeks to open up and have a rolling discussion (or one that doesn’t require my constant prompting) many students are self-professed introverts. Now, because The Learning Record requires “outstanding participation in all course activities” for an “A” grade, the hesitation to participate in class discussions becomes a concern for those students who learn best by listening—or those who have a fear of speaking in class.

In order to have a class document of students’ questions and thoughts on their assigned reading, I planned an in-class activity in which students would write their questions on a class wiki page—for all to see. As I’ve mentioned in a previous blog, our course work is conducted almost entirely on the wiki (excluding class meetings, office hours, and required reading in the form of printed text). This class document would also serve as an informal work sample (in the language of The Learning Record) documenting evidence of their reflective learning and critical thinking processes. However, my original plan to use a wiki page for the activity did not go as planned, as PBWorks does not allow for more than one typist at a time.

This, however, became what my colleague, Cate Blouke, called a “happy accident in the classroom,” as I quickly checked to make sure that all students had a gmail account, then added a link to a Google Document titled “Questions …” to the wiki page I had intended students to write on. Google Docs does allow for multiple writers at once; students, by way of experimentation (first-time experience for everyone) developed their Digital Literacy as they quickly navigated this new format and learned how to save their own space on the document and personalize it with their preferred font, font size, and color.

Having students work on the Google Doc allows everyone to see each other’s questions; it allows me to monitor their progress without peering over everyone’s shoulder or walking around to quickly check computer screens. I can stay in one place and observe their writing process—with all the backspaces, highlighting, rewriting, pauses, and self-correcting that goes on. Google Docs also allows me to quickly intervene if a student is not quite following instructions. I also get a better idea of the time it takes students to write and can easily see when most students are done writing—as activity quiets down on the Google Doc. (Without this document, students may appear to be busily working online, but they may have jumped to a different web page or activity once completing the given task.) Having all their questions as a starting point also helps guide the discussion, and the document allows us to return to past questions that are not answered in one class. The digital archive functions as collective class memory; we will not forget because it is saved online.

In these first four weeks of the semester, after our first “happy accident,” we have used Google Documents three times. The first was for their questions on the reading, the second time was for a collaborative class resource page on instances of “disability” in pop culture, and our most recent encounter was for a quick workshop on their individual research questions.

As useful as the tool has been to me as an instructor facilitating learning and working to make the best use of our class time, what I’ve found most interesting have been the student Observations on the use of Google docs during in-class activities.

One student wrote,

I noticed the class seems much more comfortable using technology to interact with each other.  Also, all the questions that were written on the google doc, while similar, all offered a unique perspective on how people interpreted the readings.  (digital literacyCreativity, originality, imagination) 

Another wrote of his difficulty with using this new format and of his strategy for adapting to it,

In class today while we were all brainstorming on the Google Doc, I observed that it was extremely difficult to type information on the page because it was bouncing all over the place with everyone typing at once. To solve this I typed my comments on a seprate word proccessor and copied them in.  Digital Literacy &prior and emerging experience

A third indicated that she liked being able to participate via Google Docs (I should note that this student does not generally speak up during in-class discussions):

“In class today we used a google document to express any questions or reflections we had about the readings we have been assigned to read outside of class. This type of class participation allowed me to write my own reflection and also allowed me to see what were my fellow classmates reflections and questions about the readings were  as well. (Skills and Strategies, Independence;Digital Literacy)”

One observant and introverted student (who also puts good effort into pitching in when he can) noted that the digital format for class participation allows for greater “accessibility:”

I noted that the majority of students are still shy and don't contribute much in discussion, myself included. I did notice that working on a Google Doc simultaneously allows for more easy and accessible sharing of ideas though. (Presentation, Knowledge + Understanding)

All four of these observations came from the class that has (up until our most recent meeting) been generally quiet and reserved during discussions. The student dynamic in the other class—which is much more vocal—did not seem to view the use of the Google Doc as an alternative mode for participating or accessing class discussions. Their observations focused on the pragmatics of the Google doc (observations along the lines of: "my reading notes allowed me to remember my questions and thoughts on the readings, so I knew what to write on the Google doc;"and, "the collaborative resource on disability in pop culture allows us to see how disability really is everywhere—even if we haven’t noticed it on our own").

However, those two comments also tell me that the Google Document has a pedagogical value when used in the classroom. When asking students if they have any questions, few, if any, may speak up. Open-ended, on-the-spot questions often leave students speechless. On the other hand, when asking students to write their questions, they know they are being observed “on paper” so to speak, so they are much more inclined to generate a question to demonstrate that they have, in fact, completed their homework. Last, collaboration in online spaces allows students to “see” each other and to realize that everyone has something to contribute.


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All materials posted to this site are licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License. We invite you to use and remix these materials, but please give credit where credit is due. In addition, we encourage you to comment on your experiments with and adaptations of these plans so that others may benefit from your experiences.


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