Using Google Docs to Teach Essay Writing and Create an Environment for Peer Learning
The collaboration possibilities provided by Google Docs have allowed me to take teaching essay writing to both a higher and more effective level. Students advance through the notions of essay writing, working continuously on improving the same document throughout the semester, to finish with a polished essay. Peer learning with Google Docs creates an atmosphere of collaboration and makes it easier for me and the students to see the progress being made as well as the competencies being acquired.
Learning the technical aspects of essay writing is very involved and students can find it difficult to master all of the elements. I wanted to find a more effective way to help students acquire these skills, as well as a means of providing more formative evaluations and feedback. The first step took place right from the first class of the semester in my English Language and Culture course (604-102-MQ). Students were asked to write an essay and submit it to me using the Assignments function in the LEA learning management system. Only basic instructions were provided to the students in order to have a starting point that represented their current knowledge of essay writing. In the past, I would correct this essay and hand it back to the students as a formative evaluation and it would never be reused again within the course. Now, I upload their essays into Google Docs before the second class and group the students into collaboration teams of 3. Each week, as they learn a new concept of essay writing, the teams of 3 return to their essays in Google Docs and make modifications related to these new notions that they have just learned. Students begin by revising their own document and then they move on to reviewing the essays of their teammates. They use the Insert Comment feature in Google Docs to help each other improve their documents as much as possible. I also review their work in progress periodically and add my own comments to ensure that the essay development is heading in the right direction.
An example of how each team member adds their comments and suggestions to improve the essays.
The students are assigned lessons on essay writing that I have prepared for homework. Each step is provided online in a Prezi presentation which is used as a guide for them to implement what they have learned in their own original essays in Google Docs. This gives them the opportunity to learn the theory, to practice using it and to apply what they have understood right away. By the end of the semester, the students have an example of a polished essay. The first half of the semester is dedicated to learning structure and substance and in the second half of the semester we examine language and mechanics. When I first organize the students into their teams, this is done randomly, as it is the beginning of the semester. At the mid-term, I change the members of the collaboration teams around, which gives me the opportunity to create more effective teams for the remainder of the semester.
I have seen a definite improvement in the structure of the essays of my students. Working with the same document and building on it by tweaking it each week, adding new concepts, and modifying it with the help of their peers has proven to be an effective method for students to grasp how to structure an essay. This semester (winter 2016) is the first time I am trying this technique, and I have identified a few things I could do differently to help the process at the beginning of the semester run a bit smoother. For example, I will ask the students to enter their essays in Google Docs themselves and show them how to use the comments feature correctly in the lab on the second day of class. This will help to avoid problems in the first few weeks of class.
I chose Google Docs after having tried LEA Forums in the past for this type of activity. The forums feature was not very effective as students were not always saving a new version of the document and sending it to their teammates. Office 365 was also an option, but I found it difficult to use, whereas Google Docs was something I could work with easily, which is why I chose this platform.
It is time-consuming to create the teams at the beginning of the semester. Prior to the first class, I contact all of the students and ask them to create a Gmail account, if they do not already have one. They then send me their Gmail address, which I enter into Google in order to prepare for the creation of the collaboration teams. But once this task is completed, the foundation is set for the entire semester. As I have not had a chance to survey the students to evaluate their satisfaction with regards to this approach, I do not have any concrete feedback to share from their point of view at this point. I do have a few mature students that were uneasy with the technology in the beginning, but these apprehensions were easily overcome.
I am thrilled with my experience of using Google Docs as a means to teach essay writing, to provide more formative feedback and to include peer learning in my course. This is a simple, yet effective technique that allows students to rework an original assignment, improving it each week, until they have a perfect final product. They see their progress and are proud of how far they have come in just one semester. I have been able to meet the goals I set for this course by adding just one tool to the course – and using it effectively!