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On Google Docs: Take 2

posted: 1.18.13 by archived

In my last blog post, I wrote about the ways I use Google Docs in The Paperless Writing Class to accomplish work I was already accomplishing using pre-cloud applications (e.g. MS Word or Excel) and to accomplish work I was already accomplishing but in new or different ways. In this post, I want to talk about a third way I use Google Docs: to do new kinds of pedagogical work. Specifically, I’ll share one way I use Google Docs to prepare students for classroom discussions of course readings. It’s highly process-oriented and hands-on, moving the sage very much off the stage (and into the margins, so to speak).

Like many writing teachers, I spend a good deal of time thinking about what I need to do to ensure that discussions of course readings succeed. The fact is, most students have busy and full lives. A long time ago, I gave up on believing that I would (or should) be able to just walk into class and begin a discussion on a course reading or series of readings. Undergraduate students just aren’t prepared for this sort of work. Even when teaching upper-level students in the major, I’ve found, students have too many other things going on in their lives to walk into a classroom and be “on.”

Over the past few years, I’ve been refining a multi-step approach to get students engaged and ready to participate in class discussions that uses Google Docs in what I think is a new and innovative way. But first, a disclaimer: this approach is made possible by the fact that a) I teach in computer labs and b) classes at my institution run two hours, twice a week.

Step 1: Prior to arriving in class, students have been assigned a reading and have posted a short written response of some kind to the Discussion Board in the LMS.

Step 2: When they arrive in class, students immediately take a brief online quiz in the LMS, which I then go over quickly. I assign such a quiz at the start of EVERY class meeting when we are slated to discuss course readings.

Step 3: Once the quiz is over and we’ve discussed it, we shift gears and prepare for group work. Prior to the start of class, I find a way to break the content of the readings into sections and assign students to small groups. Each group is assigned a section and given a manageable set of tasks. Since most of the readings I give are scholarly articles, I might ask one group to summarize the article’s research question and study design, two to four groups to report on the article’s findings, and a final group to summarize the article’s conclusion or implications. In addition to this summary work, I ask each group to do some of the following (I mix these up and vary them each time we do this activity):

a. generate a list of 1-2 discussion questions about the article
b. generate a list of 1-2 surprising or interesting aspects of the article
c. generate a list of 1-2 challenging or confusing passages from the article
d. generate a list of 1-2 connections between the article and something else we have discussed or read for class

As I give these instructions, I simultaneously create a Google Doc for the groups to do their work in and share the Doc with the students via the LMS. Each group chooses a color for their section of the Doc and they get to work.

Step 4: As they work, I monitor students’ writing in the doc and use the “insert comment” tool to talk with them about what they are writing in real time. I prod them to use complete sentences, tell them where they aren’t making sense, push them to include passages from the text to support their assertions, pose questions and raise problems with what they are writing, praise them, and sometimes rewrite passages for them to show them how they can be more clear are articulate or accurate in drawing on the words of sources. I am thinking and writing with them.

Step 5: I monitor the work process via the Google Doc and  have a sense of when the groups are winding down. When all are finished, I ask the students to review the full Doc on their own, including my marginal comments, and then we begin our discussion of the reading, which is guided by their summaries, observations, and questions. I have the Doc on the screen at the front of the class for all to see, so the writing and thinking is public and available to guide and shape our discussion.

I like this progression of activity because it requires students to revisit course readings multiple times for multiple purposes. Students spend a good deal of class time reading, re-reading, thinking, writing, and talking with one another and me about what we’re reading. There is a high level of engagement and activity PRIOR to the moment when I bring us all together to discuss the readings as a class, at which point I use the students’ questions and observations to guide the conversation, thus avoiding the all-too-familiar progression where the professor asks a question, no one responds, and he answers it himself. For me, this process is something new, different, and worthwhile.  I find it a uniquely effective way to use 21st century tools to engage 21st century learners.

 

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