Using Google Docs in Class

Collaborative writing and conferencing

By Lisa Blankenship

I’ve used Google Docs and Google Drive for more than ten years for a number of things in writing classes, some of which I’ll share here, along with a practical section on getting up and running with these platforms. But first, a brief note on what these are just in case:

Google Docs is a word processing platform, like Microsoft Word, that runs exclusively through a browser and internet connection. It is also a real-time collaboration tool: multiple users can edit a document at the same time, while seeing each others’ changes instantaneously. Additionally, Google software includes slide presentations (Google Slides), spreadsheets (Google Sheets), surveys/forms (Google Forms), and drawings (Google Drawings).

Google Drive is the cloud storage space for all of this Google software. You can use it like you would storage folders on your computer, and you can right click (or control click) folders to “Share” them with peers and me. You can set access settings (can view, comment, or edit) for folks you share files with—and often it’s easiest to produce a Share “link,” copy and paste that, and send it by email. (Thanks to Seth Graves for this paragraph.)

Pros and Cons: An advantage of using Google is that it’s ubiquitous; your students likely have used it and are used to it, and they’ll likely use it in their jobs and otherwise, so it’s a good idea for them to know how to use it or similar platforms. A disadvantage is also that it’s ubiquitous; Google seems to be taking over everything, and it’s obviously proprietary and for-profit. Even though it’s free to use, Google uses your data for their economic gain. Some free, ethical alternatives that have similar functionality are:

Another advantage of using Google Docs is that it has a good interface for collaboration and is similar enough to Word that it’s fairly seamless to go from one to the other. A disadvantage is that it’s not supported by CUNY or Baruch, so any troubleshooting will have to be on your own. As with most programs, if you use Google Docs yourself to share docs and collaborate with others first, it’s much easier to use it with your students, and you’ll likely be able to troubleshoot and help them. It’s also likely someone else in the class will be able to help—or, as I like to tell my students: If you can’t figure it out, Google the question, and 99% of the time you’ll find an answer. 

I use Google Docs for all sorts of things in every class I teach, in conjunction with Blogs@Baruch. Below, I’ll describe how I use the platform for giving feedback to writers in the class (both from me and from each other), for in-class writing prompts in Zoom, and for individual and writing group conference time sign up. 

Here’s a video overview for getting started.

Instructions for Setting Up Folders in Google Drive for Your Class 

  1. Go to
  2. Login with any Google/Gmail account you have, or create a new one for this course.
  3. Create a Folder (click “New”, then “New Folder”) and title it “ENG 2100: Fall 2020” or whatever name you want to use for your class. I recommend creating a high level “parent folder” for each class where you can create subfolders for students and/or activities throughout the term.
  4. If you want students to submit their major papers for the class that will be graded, I recommend doing this one of two ways:
    • You can create a subfolder for each student inside the class folder, and “share” it with that student. You’ll first need to ask students to send you their preferred Gmail address, and use this when you share the folder with them. They will receive an email inviting them to log in to Google to post documents in the folder. They will need to log in using their Gmail account to post files to this folder you’ve created, which only you and they can access. You can let them know this folder will show up in their “Shared with me” folder in Google Drive. Here’s more information about the “Share” feature (video link).
    • OR Ask them to create a folder in Google Drive for the class and share it with you (let them know the email address you want them to use for this purpose; I use my Baruch email). In the latter case, I ask them to create subfolders for each major project to help with organization. For example, for our Comp I class at Baruch, ENG 2100 in fall 2020, I asked students to create 4 subfolders, one for each major paper and a warmup paper:
      1. Warmup Paper
      2. Literacy Narrative
      3. Rhetorical Analysis
      4. Research-Based Argument
  5. If your students create the folder themselves, ask them to make sure the link access settings are on “Can Edit.” (You can use the Student version of this handout with these directions and revise it as you wish.)
  6. Finally, they will click “Send.” Google will send you an email with a link to the student’s class folder so that you can access the final versions of all their major papers throughout the term. These will appear in your Google Drive account under “Shared with me” in the upper left corner. 

Using Google Docs for Peer Review, Daily Writing Prompts, and Conference Sign-Up

I use Google Docs for all sorts of in-class writing activities all semester. Here’s a screenshot of my ENG 2100: Writing I class at Baruch in fall 2020:

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Using Google Docs for Peer Review

As you can see in the image above, I create a subfolder for each major project. Within these subfolders, I create another subfolder where each writing group uploads their draft for review/feedback by the members of their writing group. (I put students in writing groups of 3 to 5 for the whole term to get feedback on ideas and drafts for their projects and to compare notes/thoughts on readings.) 

Here’s what the subfolders look like if you drill down into the Literacy Narrative Draft folder:

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If you drill down into “Group 1,” you’ll see drafts for each student and feedback students have left for each other:

Students post marginal comments on the drafts of two of their writing group members based on specific questions drawn from the project rubric, and I provide my feedback in the same Google Doc so that students have three sets of feedback in the same doc. This often saves me time because I can simply point to other posts students already have provided and also affirms their skills as readers of one another’s work (and happens, as you may imagine, after I’ve modeled review for them and we’ve practiced together in a synchronous session with one of their drafts from a volunteer):

Using Google Docs for Synchronous Class Sessions

I also use Google Docs for students to write together in response to a prompt about a text or an upcoming writing project. This allows them to do the sort of group work you’d do in class, but they work in Breakout Rooms, and a notetaker drafts responses to a prompt I post in a Google Doc so that there’s a written artifact coming out of their group discussion:

  1. In Google Drive, Create > New Doc (in the class folder)
  2. Click on the blue “Share” button in the upper right corner and paste the link into chat in Zoom when you’re ready to put students into Breakout Rooms, letting them know they should click on the link when they get into their room.
  3. Put students in Breakout Rooms in Zoom with their Writing Group members, where they can either write individually in one group document, or one notetaker can record their response to a prompt.
  4. You can post their responses on your course blog or Blackboard for future reference.
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Using Google Docs for Synchronous Writing Conference Sign-Up

Another way I use Google Docs in class is for students to sign up for individual conference times with me to go over their drafts. You can create a new Google Doc in your course folder, click on the blue “Share” button in the upper right-hand corner, and make sure again here that you choose “Anyone on the internet with this link can edit” so that students can write in their names in the doc to choose a conference time: 

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Dr. Lisa Blankenship has been teaching college writing for fifteen years but considers herself a continual student and learner, especially this year. She earned her PhD in Rhetoric and Composition from Miami University of Ohio in 2013 and joined the faculty at Baruch College in fall 2014, where she serves as Director of First-Year Writing.