Group-Based Learning in the Online Classroom: Using Google Docs to Enrich Student Learning

Poster Description: Curious about how to implement group-based learning in your instruction? This poster explores how instructor librarians can harness Google Docs to integrate group-based learning in the online classroom, highlighting the benefits of group-based learning strategies and providing real-world examples from the presenter’s experiences in online teaching.

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Presenter Name: Alicia G. Vaandering, University of Rhode Island

Presenter Bio: Alicia G. Vaandering is the Student Success Librarian at the University of Rhode Island where she supports student learning, particularly for undergraduate first-year, international, first generation, and transfer students. Her research interests include library history, collaborations with academic services, and information literacy instruction. Contact via email:

7 replies on “Group-Based Learning in the Online Classroom: Using Google Docs to Enrich Student Learning”

This is very helpful information for Google docs group projects! How many students do you typically have in a session that are using the Google doc? Do students get any credit for attending a session and/or participating in the Google doc?

Great question, Melissa! The classes I work with are generally around 20-25 students. A lot of my work takes place in my own 3-credit info lit class, so the students’ work either goes towards participation points or it helps them develop skills that they’ll be applying in graded work. I also design programmatic instruction for first-year writing classes in which we use Google Sheets to guide student work (so, a little different look some similar preparation and access concerns).
The flexibility to add as many students are needed is definitely one of the strengths of Google Docs. Sometimes I design just one activity and split students into smaller groups of 4-6 students with a Google Doc for each group. Other times, I develop a few Google Docs with different activities (e.g. one might focus on developing research questions, another on concept mapping), and I let students pick what activities they think would help them the most in their learning process. In these instances, one document might just have a few students and another might have 15 students. This latter model I tend to use more for in-person classes, whereas I tend to be a bit more structured (creating set groups with the same activities) in online synchronous or asynchronous classes.

This was such a timely presentation for me because I am considering using something like Google docs so that students in my credit-bearing class can track their own progress easier – now you have given me the idea of also using it for group activities. Wouldn’t all students need a gmail account, however? Did you find this to be a barrier?

Hi Joy! This is an awesome plan! I use this extensively in my credit-bearing course. 🙂 You can actually set up Google Docs with share settings that allow anyone with the link to edit. If you do this, students do not need to have a Gmail account to contribute. You’ll need a Gmail account to set up the Google Doc, but then you can just go to Share in the top right corner, and under “Get link,” change your settings to “Anyone with the link” and “Can edit” (instead of the automatic “Viewer” that is selected).
Our university does use Gmail, but I generally still use the “Anyone with the link can edit” option during classes just to make sure everyone can get into the document(s) as soon as possible. I’ve found that when I require users to log in with their Gmail account, there are always at least one or two students who struggle to get in for whatever reason.

This is good to know. Our university doesn’t use gmail so I was concerned about logistics. I’m excited about the possibilities – thank you again!

Hi Alicia, I also have used Google Docs to get students to work together and share resources during library sessions. One issue I encountered was many students lacked familiarity with used shared documents. I often had to use much of the time allotted for the activity to explain how to use Google Docs. Did you encounter that issue? If so, how have you overcome it?

Hi Amy! Thank you so much for your question. I’ve actually been amazed at how infrequently I have students struggle with the online shared documents (particularly since the pandemic). Now…I think this is definitely the result of a few things. As the public land grant university of Rhode Island, we do have a lot of students from Rhode Island, and all our public high schools now have students work on Chromebooks, so this tends to set up a good foundation of knowledge of how to use Google Docs (and other Google Apps). I also think there’s been an increase in students’ familiarity with these tools as a result of remote learning from the pandemic.
I do think it’s incredibly important to make sure that no one feels left behind on these activities due to unfamiliarity with the tools, so I generally start activities by pulling up one of the group documents and demonstrating how to navigate and interact with the document. Usually I focus on the features they may be less familiar with (e.g. leaving comments, using the outline feature to get to different points of the document).
I know some students do have a lot of stress with new technologies, so I always try to normalize that using tech tools is a learning process that we all go through, so it’s great to ask questions if things are unclear. I also try to stress how these tools can be helpful for all kinds of academic and professional collaborations, which often gets me a little more buy-in from the students. 🙂
Amy, do you do a lot of instruction in one-shots or through multiple instruction sessions for the same (or overlapping) groups of students? I tend to change my strategies a bit in response to how frequently I’ll be engaging the students.

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