Google Documents (as of early 2015) for Teaching Writing, Part 2

by Shyam Sharma

In part one of this piece, Shyam Sharma talked about the set-up and function of Google Docs, and how it impacts teaching writing, professor feedback, and student agency. Here in part two, he looks at its workshop application, reader response, opportunities for collaboration, and reasons for caution. 



Google Docs helps to make writing a more social activity. Students can more easily access, comment on, and discuss one another’s writing. On the single, virtual copy of their work that they can now have, both they and their peers (as well as the instructor) can insert comments or directly suggest changes to the text. By the way, I don’t allow students (or anyone outside class) to use “edit” mode on peers’ writing; I too turn on the suggest/tracking feature when reading at all times.

Workshop: The most striking instance of collaboration and engagement using GD when I engage students in writing workshops. Using a draft for which I have advance permission from its author, I start by asking the class to skim through the draft, trying to understand the main idea, organization, and connections. Commenting or even asking questions isn’t allowed before I give the class a feedback rubric. If it is an early draft, I add the intermediate step of asking the author of the paper to share the main idea, describe the logical outline, and highlight what part or issue he/she most wants feedback on. Then I ask the class to look at the rubric that I have copied at the end of the draft being workshopped. Focusing on the overall idea and organization and not the sentences or even paragraphs (and not at all on grammar or syntax), students insert their feedback under corresponding questions. The flurry of writing activity that happens at this point is quite exciting.

With more developed drafts, the rubric includes paragraph-specific questions (about transition and topic/leading sentences, signaling into and out of sources, maintaining focus, etc). After asking everyone to provide general feedback (e.g., to insert comments on the introduction and conclusion), I let the class discuss one specific body paragraph together and then divide up specific paragraphs to make their feedback more focused and substantive (as well as to avoid giving too much feedback). I preface editing-focused workshops with grammar demo and practice, both of which GD makes more effective.

The workshop is a perfect opportunity to help students learn how to use the different tools in GD, so I do one as early as possible. Also, with class-wide collaboration, structure and clarity of instruction is very important. Otherwise, the technology will only help to make things worse.

Google Docs by itself doesn’t magically improve the quantity and quality of peer feedback: it is instead proper modeling and support from the teacher, the knowledge that they should do some things and not others, and the convenience of providing feedback coupled with the inspiration to do so. I also assign some regular or extra credit for substantive and useful comments to a peer’s work. This adds the hassle of having to go into the history of each file on my part, but it takes only about an hour or two at the end of the semester.

Reading Response: Another significant context where GD can promote writing is that of writing reading response. Normally, I ask students to post reading responses in private “journals” inside Blackboard. But especially in upper division courses or whenever students read more complex texts, I ask the class to sign up for writing different responses for the same text: one student signs up to write a summary, another a critique, another possible application of the ideas, etc. Using GD to sign up for doing different things also allows students to pick different texts when multiple texts are assigned. Finally, when I ask students to read and respond to each other’s responses, they can use marginal comments to do so. This provides students a more private space than blogs but without the ancient look and feel of discussion boards.


Sign-up Sheet: Signing up isn’t really writing in itself, but there is no other single thing that makes my work easier than the idea of letting students use an accessible, editable document to sign up for conferences. For all the classes I am teaching during the semester, I provide one table in a GD (columns: Date, Time, Name, Notes) and ask students to sign up. Again, the magic would go flop without some strategies/guidelines from the teacher and effective implementation by students. For instance, my sign-up sheets are only accessible within the SBU network so that GD records students’ edits in the file’s revision history. Appointments canceled less than a day from the time are considered missed. I ask them to make appointments during class when they’re not yet likely to do so. I use the appointment sheet to look up which students’ writing I should review for the day.

Real-Time Editing: Editing text that is projected on the screen is a unique and powerful feature of Google Docs, especially when students do it for classroom writing activities. I also use it for gathering response for discussion. In courses that involve collaborative projects, student groups find Google Docs very useful (even more so than wikis because of this feature). Real-time editing on the screen makes the writing process more visible than anything else, including sitting around a table. In fact, even during conferences in my office, students access their drafts with their own laptops while I use the “suggesting” and commenting tools so that the student has written text that clearly distinguishes comments from edits, that doesn’t have space limitation, and that doesn’t disappear with the piece of paper on which I wrote for the student. Whenever students don’t want to be “watched” while writing, I encourage them to work offline (which they can do by using Google “Drive” and turning off wifi, or by using another offline tool).

In-Class Writing: The synchronous, interactive, collaborative affordances of Google Docs make in-class writing more convenient and effective —whether it is diagnostic writing, editing exercises, workshopping drafts, or peer review. While students write in class, I am able to look at and insert comments of students who seek my feedback. I can ask who is willing to share what they just wrote and pull it on the screen for discussion.

Promoting Ownership: With GD, students don’t “submit” papers: they only “share.” The process and product aren’t too separated. Their writing always remains with them. As Chris and I discussed in this earlier post, there are many downsides of open and collaborative spaces, which I would encourage you to read when you can spare some time. But when we develop good teaching/learning practices by avoiding/addressing the side effects, we can use the technology to promote (rather than undermine) students’ sense of ownership of their work.


Let me conclude with a few caveats about using Google Docs.

blind spot

When Chris Petty and I wrote this post (as part of a series in 2014), we discussed the side effects and blind spots of collaborative and interactive technologies. Some of those effects include the panopticon effect (of students’ writing process being constantly watched by the teacher and peers); increased ease for peers providing poor (as well as good) feedback that can undermine the writers’ confidence; low response or superficial, especially overly positive, feedback from peers because their comment is visible to the rest of the class; and the possibility of providing too much feedback because of the increased ease of doing so. We provided a list of dos and don’ts (including personal stories) toward the end of that post. This post is an attempt to share how I am creating some best practices while using one of the applications, with the cautions that Chris and I discussed in mind.

I must also add that when I say that I have “switched to” Google Docs, I don’t mean to suggest that we should do away with working with printed copies. I ask students to bring printouts on editing/ proofreading days; I still (and probably always will) give students instructions for major assignments on printed sheets of paper (as well as link a Google Doc from the course site). Nor have I eliminated email attachments (students practice how to format their final draft in Word and submit it as an attachment). Google Docs is not a magic bullet. It is a tool, like any other, that has some unique and positive capabilities and some weaknesses—and it can be misused or poorly used.

Using applications like GD also introduces odd new challenges. For instance, I have had students logging into their drafts at 3 a.m. while I am providing feedback and starting to ask questions on the margin. “Hey, Professor, can you look at this paragraph one more time?” I refuse to respond to requests at odd times and tell students (and the class) that it is not respectful and professional to seek 24/7 support from a teacher. Another teaching moment. That said, there have been “life-saving” situations for students, such as when (in a winter intersession class) I could respond to a student’s question about a fundamental misunderstanding of an assignment. By the next class, the student had turned a failing paper into a good one.

Google Docs pushes the writing process from private to public, and this introduces many problems. One of them is that some students “emulate” writing strategies from others to the point of adversely affecting their learning. But I use this, too, as a teaching moment, and warn the class about the importance of doing sufficient research, of independently thinking through and developing an original set of arguments, and of gradually leaving the patterns imitated from others in favor of speaking in one’s own voice and style. I have found that when students understand these ideas, they try and go beyond emulation. NNES students start by imitating syntaxes and even decide to write on topics chosen by local students; they often use the same sources. I use this opportunity to warn them that they may misunderstand the social, political, and cultural contexts. I tell students that I will not be giving them good grades if their writing doesn’t engage the sources impressively, if there is lack of substance and originality, and if their writing sounds mechanical in terms of style or voice. As long as they don’t bypass the higher order aspects of research and writing, echoes of other writers’ style and expression don’t bother me.

Overall, I find Google Docs more useful than any other similar applications I have used in the past because it allows me to engage students in the process of writing as much as I want to. I don’t say this because I think that this tool (or any other) will fundamentally replace/change the way students engage with ideas or text, process or collaboration; at this time, this one happens to be the best that helps enhance the best ways in which I teach writing, adding some new conveniences and affordances to how I used to teach before. When I look at the significant increase in the amount and quality of revision, interaction with me, and collaboration with their peers since I migrated from wiki (not to mention when compared to Word attachments/uploads or submission of printed assignments), I am reminded of the reaction that many students have when they find out about the affordances of Google Doc: “Pretty cool!”


About mem13

The world is a rare and colorful and unfathomable place. I hope to capture it here as it looks through the slant of my lens. This is a blog where I write about any- and everything I can think of. Mostly past and present stuff, although if you look closely you'll pick up some prophecies, too (prophecies void in Tennessee). Links to book reviews I've written elsewhere. Once I did a mixed media poem thing. That was cool. The two coolest people I’ve met were Ralph Nader & Chuck D. Chuck praised my threads. Can’t beat that.
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