Google Docs for Collaborative Writing Activities

Last week, I was preparing a lesson plan for my composition class on how to write a research report. I found a nice description on how to organize and write a research report in one of the textbooks on technical communication that I have been using for my class. I thought I would simply introduce these guidelines to my students and have them analyze a sample research report based on these guidelines.

I found an absolutely incredible example of a research report online, which was clearly written and well organized and which followed the APA conventions (the citation style that I am using for documenting sources in my class). However, although this report was great, its organization and content did not exactly match the guidelines I found in the textbook. Because I really wanted to use that report as a good example, I decided to write a set of guidelines myself and present the report as an illustration. And then I thought: How about we write the guidelines together, as a class? In other words, the students would use the example report I found, and based on it they would create a handout describing how to write a research report. This inductive approach sounded like a good idea, and I decided to try it.

Here is the list of steps I followed to implement this activity in my class:

1. I created a Google doc file, which I shared with the students in class.

2. I divided the students into four groups. Each group was assigned to work with one section of the report: Introduction, Methods, Results, and Discussion.

3. I explained the task to the students:

You are going to collaboratively create a document “How to write a research report.”

Each team will read the assigned section of the sample report, analyze it, and based on this section, create a list of guidelines explaining how to write this particular section. You will have to cover the following points in your guidelines: 

1. Identify the purpose of the section.

2. Describe the organization of the section: What parts should/could be included in this section? Provide specific examples from the paper.

3.  List a few rhetorical strategies that can be used in this section of a report (e.g., emotional appeal to the audience, asking rhetorical questions, supporting an argument with credible sources). Provide specific examples from the paper.

4.  Give examples of phrases that can be used in this section. (After the activity was finished, I also shared with the students a website, Academic Phrasebank, that has numerous examples of phrases for research papers.)

5. Outline any other special characteristics of this section.

4. The students were advised to be general in their descriptions. In other words, although they were working with a particular report, their guidelines were supposed to be generalizable (just because “How to…” can be applied to a variety of situations, normally).

5. I also emphasized the concept of audience. For this document of guidelines the students themselves were the audience, because they were creating this document to use while working on their own research reports.

6. Next, we read the abstract of the report together to get an idea of what the study was about. After that, each group began to work on a particular section of the report (I had them draw for the sections).

7. When the groups were done with their guidelines, they pasted them into the Google doc. By the way, my students had access to the Google doc from the beginning of the class, so they were all working online (and, they were also having fun by making random comments about each other and joking. I was making sure, though, that they were staying on task).

8. After the document had been put together, the students read the guidelines and each team created at least one question for the other three teams (e.g., about something that was not clear to them). As the questions were being discussed, the students were making necessary revisions in the document. This negotiation step definitely improved the initial draft.

9. Later on, I went through the document and did minor editing and formatting.

When, later, the students were creating outlines for their research reports, they were using their own set of guidelines, instead of the descriptions from the textbook I initially prepared.

This activity can be applied virtually to any genres or types of writing you teach in your class (e.g., professional email, resume, proposal, argumentative paragraphs).



About Elena Shvidko

Elena Shvidko
Elena Shvidko is an assistant professor at Utah State University. She received her doctorate in second language studies from Purdue University and her master’s degree in TESOL from Brigham Young University. Her work appears in TESOL Journal, System, Journal on Response to Writing, TESOL interest section newsletters, and TESOL's New Ways series. Her research interests include second language writing, multimodal interaction, interpersonal aspects of language teaching, and teacher professional development.
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2 Responses to Google Docs for Collaborative Writing Activities

  1. Frances Bertrand says:

    What a great activity! What I like about it is that the students are ‘doing’ and interacting in a purposeful way. When so much of academic English necessarily involves individual reading and writing (not to mention listening to the teacher), this activity can refresh and reset mental engagement.
    One question is: do you have this activity take place in the computer lab? If not, is there a notebook per group?

    • Elena Shvidko Elena Shvidko says:

      Thank you for your comment, Frances. Yes, I forgot to mention that this activity was done in the computer lab. However, some students still used their laptops. And I am assuming this could also work with one laptop per group.

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