Collaborative Reading and Note-Taking: How to Foster a Forum Using Google Docs

Aiala Levy, April 2018

For one instructor’s students, collaboration works.Encouraging students in introductory history courses to engage with assigned sources meaningfully has been an urgent challenge of my (admittedly brief) teaching career. If there is one thing I want students to learn in my Latin American history survey courses, it is how to navigate a world of overwhelming information, to parse facts from “alternative facts,” or at least to understand that every claim originates at a particular moment in time and space. How then do I ensure that my students are interpreting course material critically and, at a more basic level, ­accurately, while still leaving room for a variety of interpretations?

This is where class participation comes in. When my students explain, ask questions about, and generally respond to sources, they are doing so in a moderated setting that allows them to consider a variety of perspectives. Even at universities (such as my current institution) where the student body is relatively homogenous, those perspectives run the gamut. Weekly discussion sessions—facilitated by my university’s enrollment cap of 35 students—are therefore an essential component of my introductory courses, and one that many students have valued in their final course evaluations.

If my students and I, alongside scholars of teaching and learning, can agree that the classroom-as-forum has pedagogic significance, how do we prepare students for active participation in that forum? In graduate school, I quickly embraced the Internet, requiring my students to respond to readings in online discussion boards and, after finding that medium limiting, on Twitter. While Twitter helped foster in-class participation in more advanced seminars, I found at my current position that tweeting failed to guarantee that students in introductory courses understood what they read. Even after lessons that explicitly targeted primary and secondary source analyses, it was clear that my students, few of whom were history majors or had completed coursework on Latin America, needed more guidance outside the classroom if we were to have a fruitful conversation within it.

If we can agree that the classroom-as-forum has pedagogic significance, how do we prepare students for active participation in it?

So I turned to another digital tool: Google Docs. Google Docs is a free, browser-based word processor. It functions much like any mainstream word processor but with an added bonus: it was designed for real-time collaboration. Google Docs and its online-storage relative, Google Drive, have been touted as tools for teaching writing on the Chronicle of Higher Education’s ProfHacker blog.1 With a bit of experimentation, however, I discovered that Google Docs was also an effective platform for teaching reading. When students had the ability to create a document together, track revisions, and post comments, their analysis of course texts improved.

The assignment that ultimately served these purposes consists of what one might call collaborative note-taking. In small groups, whose composition changed twice over the course of the semester, students collectively produced a file that summarized and reflected on an assigned reading or set of readings. While I gave students some freedom in deciding how their group would take notes, I did make several stipulations:

  1. That they fully reference the source at the top of the first page (author, title, etc.)
  2. That they summarize the source in one sentence
  3. That they identify and define between two and five of the text’s most important terms or concepts
  4. That they use quotation marks when quoting and list page numbers
  5. That they react to the reading in a way that differentiates their voice from the author’s (some students used the comments feature or a different font color, while others closed their reactions within brackets)

These guidelines, which the majority of my students initially found challenging, pushed them to think carefully about the nature and relevance of the assigned text. When we read Steve Stern’s Peru’s Indian Peoples and the Challenge of Spanish Conquest, recognizing that it was published in 1993 anchored a conversation about historiography and its significance. In the case of primary sources, such as Simón Bolívar’s proposal for a Bolivian constitution, offering a full citation required students to search for clues in an editor’s introduction or the source itself. By the end of the semester, such detective work had for many become habit, one that encouraged them to ask similar questions about information they encountered outside our course.

Additionally, summarizing the text and selecting key terms trained my students to make sense of that information. Their attempt to articulate, for example, what point Sandra Lauderdale Graham was making in telling the story of the Brazilian slave Caetana (in Caetana Says No, 2002) led to a deeper consideration of what it means to distill and synthesize information. My Modern Latin America students could then connect those considerations to the course as a whole—that is, in digesting a wide range of facts about 22 present-­day countries over the span of two centuries.

To prepare students for collaborative note-taking, I asked them to create a Google account at the start of the semester (most already had one) and to bring their laptops, tablets, or smartphones to class for a 15-minute tutorial. I organized students into groups of three or four and, as part of the tutorial, required each group to create its own shared folder within Google Drive. Each week, every group then created a new file for the folder in which they took notes on that week’s reading. The file was due before the week’s discussion session, which let me skim the document just before class to gauge students’ comprehension.

I graded students individually on a four-tiered scale, with each document valued at 1 percent of the total course grade. Grading students individually is possible because Google Docs can show files’ revision histories, which reveal each user’s contribution. Perhaps as a result, no student in my three semesters of requiring collaborative note-taking has consistently failed to complete their share of the assignment. I limit myself to a few comments per document and instead encourage students to take ownership of correcting any errors, including during class discussions. The assignment grade is primarily based on completion of the task rather than its quality, although we do regularly discuss in class how to hone note-taking and source analysis. In general, such lessons have proven fruitful for improving students’ notes over the course of the semester.

Student evaluations indicated that the assignment encouraged them to read and helped them determine what was most important in the readings.

While a couple of students last year found Google Docs cumbersome for note-taking, an overwhelming majority offered positive reviews at the semester’s midpoint and end. Their evaluations indicated that the assignment was useful for encouraging them to read, preparing them for tests and quizzes, and helping them to determine what was most important in the readings. To quote one student, collaborative note-taking pushed the class “to think critically and be more attentive to what [students] read.” As an instructor, I found the notes helpful for focusing the day’s discussion according to areas of strength and weakness in students’ reading. I could also point to a group’s notes to persuade a member of that group to join the conversation during quieter moments. In turn, by having the notes at their disposal, students were generally more likely to participate and to offer concrete evidence from the reading as they did so.

The collaborative nature of the assignment, while a challenge for a few students, provided additional benefits. Logistically, grading 6 rather than 18 documents per week meant that I could meaningfully evaluate student learning and apply that information in class. Google Docs also served as a space in which students could begin exchanging ideas before arriving in class, thus facilitating in-class discussion. Several students in their evaluations appreciated how note-taking in Google Docs “brought classmates together,” enabling them to feel a sense of community and, by extension, ownership over their learning. At the same time, students were aware of and valued the opportunity to encounter “a few different views on the reading.” As one evaluator explained, “everyone takes something different out of a reading so you got multiple perspectives,” which together offered a richer analysis of the week’s text.

Collaborative note-taking in this manner did more than sharpen students’ individual interpretation of course reading; it exposed the possibility and benefits of multiple interpretations. That awareness ultimately translated into a willingness to productively engage with alternative viewpoints online as well as in the classroom. By the time we discussed an excerpt from Evelio Buitrago Salazar’s Zarpazo, for example, students no longer hesitated to defend a broad range of stances, but also to reconsider their choice, in interpreting Colombia’s Cold War violence. Alongside other activities, Google Docs helped students find their voice and find their forum, grounding both in the critical, but civil, examination of evidence.

Aiala Levy is a visiting assistant professor of history at the University of Scranton. Visit her website and follow her on Twitter @aialalevy.


1. See, for example, Julie Meloni, “Revisiting Google Docs for Classroom Use,” May 4, 2010, and Ryan Cordell, “Using Google Docs Forms to Run a Peer-Review Writing Workshop,” May 4, 2011.

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