Using Google Documents in Discussion-Based Courses

This semester, I’m teaching a discussion-based course. I’ve taught this sort of course before, and I really like the no-lecture format, as I think the students learn more when they work through the materials themselves and teach each other. However, the major problem with this format of a course is figuring out how to get all the students to engage in the discussions. There are always a few really chatty students who do a lot of the talking, and some who never speak. Most importantly, to quote my University of Michigan colleague Orie Shafer, “the boldest, most confident person is rarely the person who understands things the best.”

Over the years, I’ve tried different strategies to encourage more even participation, but still felt like the evenness of discussion participation was a problem in courses. So, when I met with someone from the University of Michigan Center for Research on Learning and Teaching about the design of the course I’m teaching this semester, this was a topic I was interested in discussing more. She recommended watching this video featuring Orie Shafer talking about how he uses google documents to facilitate group discussion in his class. (Here’s a direct link to the video.) That video is where the quote in the preceding paragraph comes from, and it really resonated with me. So, I decided to give google docs a shot this semester.

How do they work? Well, we use slightly different approaches in different class periods, but the general idea is that the students split up into groups (it seems to work best if I split them up, rather than letting them choose groups themselves). Each group is then given a set of questions to answer or topics to research. They open up a google document, share it with their group mates (groups are usually 2-4 people), and share it with me. Then they get to work on answering the questions or researching the topics. Sometimes, the whole class answers a single set of questions – I am most likely to use this approach if the reading was a difficult reading from the primary literature. In this case, I give them a set of questions aimed at making sure they all understand the main results, where they came from, and what they mean. Other times, each group researches a different topic related to the readings for the day; oftentimes, many of these topics emerge out of the pre-class forum discussions, but other times the topics are things that I think they would be interested in or that would be important for them to understand.

In my opinion, there are several key advantages of using google documents in discussion-based courses:

1. Being able to type out their answers gives the students who are more shy a more even playing field, and allows them to get their thoughts and opinions out.

2. Even for students who aren’t particularly shy, writing out their thoughts before trying to articulate them to a large group can give them a space to work through complicated ideas. I’ve overheard students commenting to each other how much easier it is for them to get things out in writing first, then to discuss it with each other. Of course, google documents aren’t essential for this – you could have the students write down their thoughts on paper first.

3. I can more easily monitor the different groups and provide feedback in a less intrusive way. This is probably the biggest benefit of the google docs, in my opinion. In previous discussion-based courses, I would rotate around the room to check in on the different groups. As soon as I got to a group, they would usually all stop talking and look at me. Now, I monitor the discussions from my laptop at the front of the room, so I can more easily see what they’re confused by. And, more importantly, if they are heading off in the wrong direction or their document reveals a fundamental misconception about something, it is much easier for me to get them back on track in a way that doesn’t embarrass the students. For example, in one class this semester, the answers to one question by one group revealed a really fundamental misunderstanding of human evolution. If this had come up in front of the whole class, it would have been tricky to correct it in a way that didn’t completely stifle remaining discussions. And, if this had happened in a small group before I started using google docs in class, I probably wouldn’t have known they were so confused about this topic, because I wouldn’t have been likely to hear it while circulating the room. But, with the google document, I could see it and just type in a note suggesting that they should do some research on human evolution and patterns of migration. That was enough to get them back on track and then, in a moment that shows the power of this peer-based learning, they then explained what they had just learned to their peers. This is not something I would have thought to include in a lecture on this topic, because I wouldn’t have realized they were confused about this – again, this is one of the strengths of this approach to teaching.

4. It is easy to create a document at the end of class that synthesizes the major topics of discussion. I copy chunks of the different groups’ google documents and post that file to the course website so students can come back to it later. For example, earlier in the semester, I had one group go through the different stages of clinical trials, with the goal of having them understand how long the process is. In a later class, students were wondering why doctors weren’t prescribing a drug based on a result from an experiment done in mice that had just been published last May. Clearly the were forgetting about the lengthy clinical trial process! So, we went back to the document that synthesized our earlier discussions, and could recap all that information.

(As a general note, part of why I think it works so well in my class this semester is that all students bring laptops to class. They are not required to bring laptops, but are strongly encouraged to do so.)

Of course, it’s not all upsides. Some downsides to the approach:

1. While it’s easier to monitor the discussions than by circulating the room, I still find it difficult to keep them on top of all the groups. (We’ve had as many as 9 groups researching different topics.) I don’t know that there’s much I can do about this, other than get better at following different documents at once.

2. Similarly, some level of walking around the groups is still useful, even if the students initially stop talking when I get there. They often have questions about the topic that they ask when I stop by, but not via google document. So, I need to do some combination of them, which means even more for me to juggle.

(These next two are not specific to google documents, but more to this discussions-based approach.)

3. I think some students would prefer that I just tell them what they’re supposed to know. I’ve tried to explain to students that part of the benefit of student-centered learning is that, when they figure it out themselves or learn from a peer, it sticks much better than if I just try to explain it. But my class this semester is made up of freshman, and their other science courses are probably all traditional lectures. Some students prefer that approach (even if the data show that they don’t retain the material as well when it’s presented in lecture format). As Eric Mazur mentioned in his talk at UMich (storified here), there can be a false sense of security after sitting through a lecture – you feel like you’ve learned a lot because of all the information that was just presented to you, even if understanding and retention of that information tend to be poor.

4. Choosing the topics for small group work is difficult and requires lots of last-minute work on my part. As I said above, I try to base the in-class discussion topics on the forum posts by the students. (Their forum posts are due the night before class.) This means that I spend a few hours right before class trying to find topics and sources that are accessible, informative, interesting, and reliable. And then I have to figure out how to group them together and try to make it so that the different groups have roughly similar amounts of material to process and present to their peers. I tend to be the sort of person who prepares things well in advance, so this “just-in-time” teaching can feel like a scramble for me.

5. Sometimes the wireless goes down, and then we have to adjust on the fly in class.

6. By encouraging everyone to bring their laptops and have them open, I am certainly making it more likely that some students will get distracted by instant messages, emails, etc. Most of the students have their laptops open so they can read the notes they wrote and/or take notes on what other students are saying. But I know some of them are sometimes switching to non-class materials. I’m not entirely sure of what to do about this. I think if the students had exams that might potentially cover any topic that was brought up in class, that would encourage some students to pay attention more. (At the same time, it would probably also stress out other students who would then be just trying to memorize things for an exam.)

Overall, I’ve been happy with using google docs in class, and plan on continuing to use them in my discussion-based classes in the future. Participation in my class this semester has been much more even than in previous classes. There are still some students who talk more than others, but no one dominates discussion. And there are other students who are still pretty shy, but everyone participates in class now, which I’ve never had happen before. At the same time, I will probably try to change some aspects of the course, especially to reduce the digital distraction problem. But I suspect those will center more on assessments, and that I won’t give up on google docs in class — I think they really help with discussions.

17 thoughts on “Using Google Documents in Discussion-Based Courses

  1. Hey Meg. Great post. Besides Google docs, which seems to be working well and is free, there are a number of other free and pay options for doing this kind of thing in class – one of the more interesting ones is Learning Catalytics from Pearson.. It is a “bring your own device” student response system, that can be used like a “clicker”, or like how you use google docs… but one interesting feature is that for questions with “right answers”, it can track which groups are doing well and which aren’t with a spatial map, so the instructor knows where in the room their help is needed. Moreover, it can send the students feedback – if I am struggling but my neighbor got the right answer, the system can message me “turn to your left and ask “Jeff” for some help”. How does it work in practice? Not sure…. and its not free… (I am not a paid spokesperson for Pearson.🙂 )

    • I use LC in place of clickers and as a pre-class Just in Time Teaching quiz. It works terrific for both. I don’t know that it would work well for this sort of activity – the text answers that students submit are in a very skinny column on the instructor feed, and it would be difficult to skim more than a dozen and provide individual feedback.

  2. Great post! I used google docs many times when doing online course with Texas Tech University last year and it did very helpful. As non native English speaker it’s helping me to speak my idea and opinion with other students especially because I am introvertian🙂 Very effective and efficient too for making notes and reading if we forget something.

  3. Thanks for this Meg. It’s well-timed for me, just went to a presentation here at Calgary by a colleague who had flipped her classroom and gone to an approach much like what you describe, involving a lot of in-class small group problem solving. But she didn’t use Google docs, instead walking around the room, and using a paper-based “scratch card” system to give student instant feedback on their answers.

    A colleague and I are thinking of moving to this approach for introductory biostats. It’s a big class (125 students), and I’m now in my second term of teaching it. I’m not satisfied with how well the class as a whole is doing, last term or this term. They’re not doing badly, but the idealist in me wants *everyone* to get this stuff! I already devote about 4 lecture sessions to in-class practice problems where students work in pairs, and the students like that and find it helpful, so I’m already a bit of the way down the road towards what you describe.

    Some questions for you, which I’ve also asked of my Calgary colleague who teaches this way. I’m tempted to ask you *lots* of questions, but I’ll try to restrain myself.🙂

    -How much extra prep is it relative to conventional lecture prep? I’m guessing I lot of the extra prep is a one-time investment in things like coming up with good questions for them to work on in groups?

    -Did the students do better, in terms of their grasp of the material? My colleague says that many of them (though definitely not all of them) enjoy the group work more than conventional lectures. But if it’s just a way to make the students happy and thereby fool them into thinking they’re learning more than they actually are, well, obviously that’s not desirable. (Not that you can’t fool the students that way with entertaining lectures too)

    -Follow-up from the previous question: insofar as the students do better with the flipped classroom, is it just because they’re forced to put more total time and effort into the course than they would otherwise? That is, in addition to attending class, they’re now also forced to do the readings (or watch the videos, or etc.) that serve as essential background for the in-class group work. When with a conventional, non-flipped classroom, they could just attend lecture and skip the background readings and practice problems.

    -Do you think it helps the students learn technical vocabulary? That’s a *big* struggle for my biostats students–I think in many cases they get the concepts, but struggle to memorize all the jargon. My colleague who uses this flipped approach for a fungi class (so, a class with a *ton* of jargon) says she noticed a huge improvement in their grasp of terms. Because they were using the terms to talk to their fellow group members, not just trying to memorize the terms. Which makes sense, since that’s what jargon’s for–to give you the ability to talk to fellow experts efficiently and precisely.

    • Jeremy,
      I am flipping this semester and find that it has doubled my prep time. I don’t think it fools students into thinking they are learning more – I think my students better realize all that they don’t know. I haven’t collected the stats, but another prof here in Engineering has 4 semesters of data (2 traditional, 2 flipped) where student-reported time spent outside of class was the same. The emphasis with flipping is that now you are giving much more structure to how they spend their time, and more-or-less ensuring that they do some of it before class. Overall, I am enjoying the process aside for the time-consuming prep.
      I think it is a great model for getting students to familiarize with jargon before class, so they can focus more on the mechanics of a process or problem.

      • I will have many more thoughts on flipping a larger course this time next year, since we’ll be flipping Intro Bio (~650 students, split over two lectures) in the fall. I definitely expect it will substantially increase my prep time in the first year, but hopefully it will go back to a more normal level after that.

        For that sort of course, I imagine there would be a lot of similarity between courses in terms of what students get hung up on and what sorts of problems we need to work through in class, which would presumably help speed up prep time in future semesters.

        I agree with Linda that the increased learning that comes from this approach is real, and that it probably stems in large part from having the students really confront what they do and do not know. This is one benefit I’ve found to using clickers in the past — I find that students all think they know competition, and that it really helps get their attention to give them a clicker question early on that makes them realize what they don’t know. After that, they pay much closer attention.

        In terms of technical vocubulary: something that I am hoping is that, by moving that to pre-class readings and quizzes, I won’t have to cover a lot of that in class. I hate reading off definitions in class (and students hate it, too), but, of course, we need a common vocabulary to discuss these topics, as you said. I think flipping might really help with this, and it’s good to hear that it’s worked well for your colleague!

        I do think you’re right that some of the benefit of flipping a class is that it forces students to put in more time outside of class than they might have otherwise. It helps provide a structure for students that helps them keep up with the materials. Otherwise, it is just too easy to end up in a situation where a student is cramming for an exam, and that is not a good way to really learn material.

  4. Meg-
    Even in my activities in the flipped class, I find many students still work as a silo because they almost all have a laptop in front of them. This is despite the fact that there may be a worksheet that I only distribute as one per group, or a scratch-off quiz. Do you find with the google docs that students within a group tend to work individually – interacting virtually rather than verbally? If not, anything you think you do to reduce that?

    • Good question! Kind of gets to what do we mean by ‘group’ work? If they’re all editing a shared document, but not talking to or instant messaging one another as they do it–but yet all reading one another’s work/edits/comments and reacting accordingly–is it “group” work? I confess I’m unsure…

    • This is variable. There are some groups that use the divide-and-conquer approach, and this seems to be increasing as the semester goes on. I probably should change how I have the groups report their results — one option would be that I call on a group member at random to explain things, instead of allowing them to explain things as they choose. But I hate how forced that feels.

      But most of the groups are discussing things together (sometimes via a google chat, which I found pretty funny to watch). Something that initially threw me off was that some of the groups are very quiet at first. But, really, that makes sense: they are initially reading and processing and forming their own thoughts, and then they all start discussing later.

  5. In response to downside #6. I fully admit that I am currently teaching a computer based genomics lab where students are spread around the lab assembling genomes on their laptops. Here I am sitting in front of the room reading your blog posts… Maybe I should walk around the room to see what the students are up to….🙂

  6. I’m very intrigued by the idea of Google Docs enabling shy students to contribute more. My question: what about the students who DON’T have laptops? Even if that’s just a small fraction, I wouldn’t want to leave those students out in the cold, especially if they’re the most economically disadvantaged ones…

    • I worried about this a lot, and was prepared to scrap the idea of google docs. I actually consulted with a few people (including my department’s Associate Chair for Undergraduate Affairs and someone from the Center for Research on Learning and Teaching) to make sure I implemented this in a way that wouldn’t lead to inequalities in class. The other major potential concern was if there was a student with a disability that would make using google documents more difficult. Neither of those has been an issue for my class, fortunately. Everyone in the class has a laptop. This has undoubtedly contributed to the success of google docs in my class.

  7. “When they figure it out themselves or learn from a peer, it sticks much better than if I just try to explain it.”

    I have heard this, been taught this, and have heard it some more. But surely even if it’s true on average, that doesn’t mean it’s true for every individual person.

  8. Need an interesting read? Try Andrews et al. 2011 from CBE – Life Sciences titled “Active Learning Not Associated with Student Learning in a Random Sample of College Biology Courses”. Not a perfect study, and of course no definitive answers – but an ambitious semi-random sample of 33 professors around the country using active pedagogy to varying degrees in their classrooms… and the conclusion is that amount of active content does not explain amount of learning on a well-validated natural selection assessment. There are problems with participant selection bias (who responds to the study investigators), and how to define what is “active” and the quantity of active content… but nonetheless, still something to think about. The authors I think make the point that when someone well-versed in pedagogy and cognition and learning applies active approaches, they work really well… but when it comes time for average Dr. Joe/Josephina Professor to apply these same techniques, they may not be as successful. And naturally, the people who tend to conduct educational research evaluating the efficacy of new pedagogy are usually in the former group, not the latter. This is not a condemnation of the approach, or the need for reform… but I think it points to a (potential) challenge facing the wide scale adoption of flipped classrooms and the like. Just as there are talented lecturers and terrible ones, there will be good and bad flipped classrooms. The next generation of pedagogical research questions might usefully explore not whether active is better than old-school, but what features of active pedagogy are actually the important ones. Just as a teaser, there was study (which I cant remember now but could dig up if need be) that found just stopping and taking a break between straight lecture bits (yes… just sitting there) was as useful at increasing student attention and retention as was switching activities… this suggests that at least some of the benefits of an active classroom may stem less from pedagogical differences, and more from structural/logistical ones. Maybe.🙂

    • Good point. I’m by no means an expert, but it’s my broad impression that a lot of pedagogical research is based on pretty small sample sizes, and it’s often hard to specify with any precision the statistical population from which the sample was drawn. This is of course an issue with lots of social science (and ecological!) research.

      But of course, one still has to make a decision as to how to teach. And so in practice I do what I think a lot of people do–I go with a combination of my reading of the literature, my own gut instincts and personal experiences, and the experiences of colleagues like Meg. And in my case, also a significant amount of inertia and need/desire to attend to other things (including this blog). I do a decent amount of ongoing tweaking to my teaching–but I’ve never done anything as radical as flipping a classroom. I find Meg amazing, I don’t know how she finds the time to do the innovative teaching prep she does in addition to everything else she’s got on her plate. And without working 80 hours per week.🙂

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