Readings, Class Discussion and Google Docs

Dr. Jay Case is professor of history at Malone University who specializes in church and missionary histories as well as the church’s influence upon American and global culture. Jay is respected by students and colleagues and carries a wealth of experience (including six year of missions work in Africa) and perspective. Jay writes to us today about a semester-long experience of allowing students to submit their reading responses through Google Docs. He weighs to pros and cons and explains how he will do it differently next time around. Jay is in the middle of publishing a new book so I appreciate his taking the time to write to us too! Thank you Jay!

The idea: requiring students to use Google Docs to submit responses to readings.

The rationale: Those of us who are well acquainted with human nature and student behavior are not surprised that many (most?  almost all?) students will not do the reading if we just ask them politely.  (Nagging does not seem to work very well either, and can be considered bad form in some quarters).   And yet, some of us teach disciplines in which students really need to read and discuss texts if they are truly going to engage the material on a sophisticated level.   There are many ways to address this problem, but for many years I have assigned a question for each reading.  Students know that in just about every class, they will have to turn in a response to the question, based on the reading.  For many years, I had students turn in hard copy responses.  But last spring, when I team-taught a GEN 460 class with Andrew Rudd, he suggested that we have students submit their responses (and their formal papers, for that matter) using Google Docs.  Instead of submitting a hard copy each day, students would submit their responses electronically.

Pedagogically, this system addresses many of the same goals that I had for submitting hard copies.   If the question were phrased well, students would have to do at least some minimal reading to be able to give a decent response.  By doing the reading ahead of time, they would come to class with something of substance to discuss.  And those of us who are well acquainted with human nature and student behavior know that students will often delay large chunks of reading until right before the test or paper is due.  By spacing out sections of the reading over a number of class sessions, students take in the reading more gradually, as we go along.

The use of Google Docs, however, adds a few new wrinkles to the process.  (I should mention that Andrew set up the system for us last spring, so I can’t speak to all of the technical details of getting the system up and running.  I’ll stick mostly to the pedagogical issues here).


I found several parts of this system to be an improvement over the old system of submitting hard copies:

  1. Most obviously, we didn’t have to spend time collecting responses during each class session and we preserved a small part of our national woodlands by saving paper.
  2. We also eliminated a common excuse (sometimes legitimate, sometimes just a lie – but who can tell?) that students could not bring their paper to class that day because their printer was malfunctioning.
  3. Another nice feature of Google docs is that each submission is not only dated, but has a time of submission stamped with the submission, so we know exactly when a student finished a response.  Even more helpful, for our formal papers, Google Docs has a feature that allows you to see the revision history of a paper.  We can see when and how many times students made revisions to their papers and responses.  This helps clear up strange excuses students might have if they did not submit things on time.  (I wish I had this feature in another class last spring where I did not use Google docs.  I had a plagiarism issue where a student claimed to have put together two papers – one in which he had copied information from the internet and one composed of his original writing that he had completed at the time of the due date.  He said he accidently submitted a plagiarized paper when he intended to submit his original writing.  This excuse still did not save him, but it would have been difficult for him to make this argument if I had access to all of his revision data.)
  4. We also found that students in this class wrote more fully and more thoughtfully when they had to submit a response electronically, as compared to hand-written hard copies that previous classes had submitted.  Perhaps if we had required typed responses in previous classes, the effect would be the same, but it does seem that students took the questions more seriously when they had to type up an electronic response.  It may be that this form felt more like a formal paper to them.
  5. At the end of the semester, we had a complete electronic copy of all student submissions, our comments, and grades given, in case there were any questions or issues that arose with grades.
  6. It is easy to highlight insightful or problematic comments students made in their responses.  For comments, I have found typing to be a tad more cumbersome than the old-fashioned pen and ink method, but Andrew has a nifty iPad that allows him to write in responses by hand that appear in electronic form on the Google doc submission.

Disadvantages or Bugs Yet to be Worked Out

  1. We still need to figure out a way to effectively handle the electronic organization.  Google Docs simply lists all the submissions in one big long list, titled by whatever the student put on the submission.  When you get 25 different submissions each class period, this piles up pretty quickly.   Google Docs does allow you to make folders, but then you have to spend time filing everything.  Andrew had his student workers periodically file these away, but it does seem that there might be a better way to handle this part.
  2. Those of us who are acquainted with human nature and professor behavior know that professors sometimes fail to return submissions in timely fashion.  Because we did not have hard copies cluttering up our office to remind us that the students needed these papers back, Andrew and I sometimes allowed too much time to pass before we graded and responded to the submissions.  Furthermore, since we were responding electronically, it was up to the student to check the papers to see the grade and response.  I’m guessing that many of them did not look at many of our responses.  I’m not exactly sure what to do about this problem.  Suggestions will be welcome.
  3. Some students in the beginning of the semester did not properly submit their responses, so they ended up some place other than our Google Docs account.  I think this problem can be cleared up with better communication up front.

Next Step

I am most excited about a possible procedure with Google Docs that Andrew came up with when we were debriefing after the semester ended.  When we teach GEN 460 next spring, we will require a due date and time that would be about 6 hours before class begins.  Andrew and I will then read, respond and grade the responses before class begins.  The big advantage here is that we can better draw in thoughtful students who tend to be quiet in class discussions. Very often, we found out that certain students had written out a great insight or observation in their responses (which we read several days later), but had said nothing in class.  If, when class began, we have a few great points or quotes in hand from the quieter students, we would be able to ask them to expand or explain these points at appropriate moments in the discussion.  Hopefully, this will help to get these students more involved in the discussion, help direct the discussion in more fruitful directions, and possibly slow down verbose but less thoughtful students who can dominate the discussion.  It will also compel procrastinating professors to grade the responses in a more timely manner.  We will see how that idea works.

Jay (and Andrew’s) Kit

  • Malone Google Docs (all faculty and staff and students have an account and sign in with their Malone username and password)

Additional Resources

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