Formatting And Feedback In Google Docs English Language Essay

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What is the best way to give feedback on a piece of work produced in Google Docs? What formatting tools are most appropriate to use when leaving comments? How do you organise 30 to 60 pieces of work handed in to you? How do students hand in work? What new possibilities does this process uncover?

These are some of the questions which will be driving my thinking in this post about assessing and giving written feedback on work that student have produced in Google Docs. It was at the beginning of May that we began using Google Apps, and in particular the Docs tools, with the PEO level 2 students. I am beginning to take some things for granted, it has become a part of what we do and another choice for them to use. Google Docs has become just another addition to their toolkit.

I am currently marking two cohorts worth of knowledge questions, these are my reflections on what it is like to mark work in Google Docs.

3 tools to add feedback to a piece of work.

First of all you need to make it explicit with the class what they must expect to see in their work in terms of marking and feedback. Just as I have encouraged the students to communicate what to expect from each other when collaborating on a document, I have made it clear to my class the types of marking I will be adding. I have shown examples and talked through what they mean from my point of view. I think that it is important to have a few methods that are simple and are clear in terms of their feedback function. Here are my three.

1 - How do I highlight any spelling or grammatical errors?

I use the highlight tool and a light shade of red to pick out any mistakes that the student may need to revisit and change. The same could be done with an underline tool but I wanted a clear visual cue to problem spots. A method that I explored on Wednesday during a "live marking" (see below) session, is to change the highlight to a green when I see that the correction is made.

The student may revisit the piece of work and see the highlighted word, they correct the spelling and they also could change the highlight to a green - signalling to me that they have seen and acted upon the feedback. In this way the original position of the mistake is still clear - although this is, in some way, redundant with the document's revision history.

2 - How do I add comments within a piece of work?

For those comments that you might add in the margin of a handwritten piece I use the Docs comment feature. Place the cursor after the sentence or word you want to comment on and hit CONTROL+M, this is the quickest method for me - you can also use INSERT>COMMENT from the menu bar. You will see a small coloured box appear where you placed the cursor and you can add a short comment about the work. Each comment is tagged by default with your full name, time and date. This can be a useful feature and I would leave it in at least once to show the student the full information, but if the student already understand that the comment boxes will be from you, then there is no need for this information and I often delete it out.

Another reason to delete the name and date information is that if you were to add some suggestions for alternative vocabulary in a comment, the student can right click the comments and insert them directly into the text - blending their work with your feedback and suggestions. But all of the comment text is inserted including name and date - best just to delete user info  out.

It would be a useful addition to the Docs settings to be able to switch between different information in the comment box as default, for example just the date would be useful to me, or none at all.

It is worth noting that wherever you place the comments they will inherit the formatting of the surrounding text, so if you add a comment immediately after a highlighted error the comment is highlighted too. This also applies for headings and other text formatting.

3 - How and where do I write overall comments for a piece of work?

For this type of feedback I use the document header function, that way I know it is distinct from the rest of the work (dotted border) and is clearly signalled to the user when they open it - always on top.

For the first assignments I have added in the same reminder (see image) about the type of marking they will see in their work. If I need to provide a series of comments over time it is worth just dating them to begin with.

Handing work out, handing work in

One of the earliest procedures that I explored was to be able to quickly distribute a single document and the idea of student handing work in to me. Sharing is the most important part of all of this and I would say it is the key feature of Docs. Once I have created a document for the student to use as a starting point or a text for them to work on, I share it with all of my class. The way to create groups of users to share docs etc within Ed Apps is to do it in GMail.

1) Login as usual to your domain account you use and got to your GMail.

2) Open up your CONTACTS.

3) You should see a list of contacts you have, most likely to be all users on domain. Click on the ALL CONTACTS link to see everyone.

4) Go through your list and select the users you want in your group.

5) Click on the GROUPS button and ADD TO… NEW GROUP.

Now that you have created a group it will appear when you share any of your Docs if you click Contacts. When the students hand work in to you they have to simply share the document with you, they will appear in your docs home page and you will see their username next to the document title. Naming the document with the student's initials is important if their username does not already contain that information. For us I can see who owns different documents from their usernames, for other institutions the naming of documents may be more of an issue.

A writing crumbtrail

A key feature that sets it apart from handwritten work is the document crumbtrail, or revision history. As a teacher I can see every little change and alteration that has gone on from the beginning of the document. You can access the revision history in two ways, from the File menu or from the Tools menu. I have the functionality of comparing older and newer versions.

I find this especially useful with written pieces that have been completed over a series of session or days as I can see, from the dated entries, what has been added and how much has been done. A good method to keep on top of how much work has been completed. The students also have found this useful, giving them the option to revert easily to older versions that they prefer. This tool offers me a window into the document's past - I can retrace the crumbs and focus on the process as well and the product.

A pile of marking!

Google Docs marking means I do not need to be carrying around piles of work books - however I came across a simple, yet important, problem when I was working this week. If I have a pile of books or papers to give feedback on I activate the intricate system of piles, which I name "marked" and "unmarked" But when you are looking at a list of documents that the student have shared with you there is no immediate way to label them or sort in the same way.

Here are a couple of my solutions. Organise all of the documents into a single folder that is named after the work that you are doing, this folder could be nested inside a subject folder too. In the same folder as all of the student's work create two folders named MARKED (green) and UNMARKED (red). Now move all of the Docs to the UNMARKED folder, get some marking done and move them when it is complete over to the MARKED folder.

I like this method but sometimes it can behave strangely because along with moving folders you can also add documents to multiple folders - it can get confusing if you have moved and also added, the document will show multiple labels.

A second method, which is much simpler, would be to use the STAR feature. Click on the star to the left of the document title. You will then be able to sort all of your documents from the STARRED view in the left bar.

I would use the star to show unmarked work, this way I would be able to see work that still needs feedback adding across lots of different projects from the STARRED view. The STARRED view then becomes a simple marking to do list.

Live feedback

Perhaps the most exciting development this week is the idea of live marking. A time when both I and the student/s are viewing and working on a document. As much as I am looking for learning that is transformative I am also aware that this type of assessment activity is unprecedented and in its own way is transforming the way I provide feedback. It is not a new idea to sit with a Student and go through what they have done, what is different is the fact that we can both work on the document at the same time, I can highlight and mark up the text and the student can make the changes that I suggest as we work. This works very well in practice as proved this week in my class, a pair of students were making the changes I had suggested to their first paragraph as I was looking at the second and so on.

One of the hardest challenges I face with a constricted timetable and expanding curriculum is finding time for the student to review marking I have given and responding to it in turn. It is a crucial step towards a more dialogue centred marking approach but is very difficult in practice with the fast pace of what we do and what is expected of us. I think that the live marking concept brings the marking you, as a teacher, provide and the response the student give together. You mark they respond, it works. The main issue is time and how long it takes to do. You have to both be working on the document, I got through about four of these live marking sessions in about thirty five minutes and that's my first shot at it. With thirty to get through it may be something that I have to build time in for but which is very powerful because of the immediate and fast paced response I get. It may belong to a longer unit of work which allows me time over a series of sessions/days to cover all of your students. A live marking model would also work very well for peer assessment purposes and would sidestep the issue of time.

Crucially this method of marking negates any dead time in between your feedback being given and the student making the improvements, that can only be to the benefit of the student and the standard of work they produce.

Ongoing reporting to parents

Another idea I have thought about this week involves the use of Google Docs in the process of reporting to parents. The parents at our college currently receive a report on student's progress if requested. I have considered the concept of contributing to the report as the year progresses, writing about the unit of work we have just finished at that moment, rather than waiting five months for a parental request to come in. What if we shared a report document with the student's parents at the beginning of the year and explained that the student's reports will build throughout the year but they have complete access to them whenever they want (subject to ethical considerations being met). As the year wears on I add comments and remarks about the student's which are immediately shared with the parent. Perhaps I can communicate with the parents when these planned series of updates will take place or you simply inform them when changes do take place.

According to this report 82% of GB parents with student 17 or under said that an online reporting service would be helpful. The UK Minister of State for Schools and Learners Jim Knight has announced plans to have 'real-time' electronic school reporting systems up and running in all secondary schools by 2010, and in all primary schools by 2012. That is 4 years away for us! It is not a dedicated report writing tool, true, but it is a simple and easy way to share a document. With careful planning, the support of next years parents and my college we could have this running from next September.