Using Google Docs to Engage Students Online: Student Collaborations Can Create Better Searches

Poster Description: Having trouble keeping students engaged on Zoom? Let them collaborate by putting them into breakout rooms and use Google Docs to encourage them to help each other craft better search strategies. Join us to explore the process of creating an engaging activity, including pro tips and lessons learned.

Poster: Click here to access a direct link to the poster. An accessible-friendly version is also available.

Presenter Names: Amber Wilson and Heather Reinold, University of Central Arkansas

Presenter Bios: Amber Wilson is a Faculty Librarian who leads the Education and Outreach team at the University of Central Arkansas. She earned her MSIS from the University of Texas in 2008. Her efforts focus on information literacy and the role the library can play in student recruitment, engagement, and retention. Email:

Heather Reinold is a Library Technician for the Education and Outreach team at the University of Central Arkansas Torreyson Library. She is currently enrolled at SJSU for her MLIS degree. Heather earned her M.A. in History (2020) from UCA and is a Certified Archivist (ACA-2021). Email:

14 replies on “Using Google Docs to Engage Students Online: Student Collaborations Can Create Better Searches”

Hi Amber and Heather! I enjoyed learning from your poster. I think the providing the template of the Google Doc saved time and ensured consistency. Were there any hiccups in the students using Google Docs? Any tips that you provided to students for multiple users on the same doc?

Hi Ruth!

There were only a few hiccups in the beginning. One, which is discussed in the poster, is making sure your google doc is viewable and editable to students by choosing the correct settings. We used Bitly to generate shorter links when sharing the Google Doc links with our students. Additionally, something slightly unfortunate is the fact that students appear as “Anonymous Animals” (e.g., anonymous hippo, anonymous mouse, etc.). So if a student decides to type something inappropriate it is available for all to see. However, while this was an issue that could have occurred, the students stayed professional. One tip I might suggest is to maybe have students type their names in different colors at the top of the document. Though I believe the anonymity helped students engage more with this document than having their name attached to certain terms. Hope this helps!

Best, Heather

Thanks, Heather! It is good to know that most of your students were familiar with Google Docs and all continued to be professional.

Hi Amber and Heather,
I am curious what kind of share out or large group discussion you did after the breakouts. And how did you ensure on topic discussions during the breakout/assist students who needed help.

Hello Torrie!
A session normally began with talking about search strategies before the professor assigned breakout rooms based on topics. So, students who had similar topics when to the same breakout room. We would “pop” in periodically to see if students had questions or needed assistance. Additionally students could call for assistance via chat to the professor who would then assign myself, Amber, or themselves to the breakout room. Because these sessions ranged from 50min to 75min. Students were given approximately 10min to do their own searches in the initial instruction session. If the professor requested a second day of instruction, then the entire time (other than a few minutes briefly covering those search strategies again – no more than 10 min.) was spent on students researching and us popping in and out of the breakout rooms. Other than sharing screens, there was not a definite way to see if students were actually performing research, however, it seemed the majority were doing so. Especially when we asked students to share their screens so we could see how their searches were going. Hope this helps!
Best, Heather

Hi Heather,
Just wondering if you gave students time to search on their own before they entered the breakout rooms, or if they searched while they were in the breakout rooms?

Hi Sara,

We gave them around five to ten minutes in the breakout rooms before checking in. It was mainly to make sure they were doing the work but also checking to see what search strategies they were using. After talking for a bit, we left them in their breakout room to check on other students before doing the rotation over again. This was especially the case if we had a second day of instruction where the majority of the class period was spend researching. Occasionally students would notify us they needed help through chat and we would go to that room first.

Best, Heather

This is great – thank you so much for sharing. How much instruction do you do before the Breakout Room activity exactly? Do you show them how to search using one example of your own, then show them how to find the subject terms, and how to skim an abstract looking for other “discoverable terms?” What does the pre-Breakout Room activity look like? Thank you again!

This was actually my question, as well. I have always made a passing mention to subject terms, as well as terms used within the actual article; however, haven’t really had a ‘crowd sourced’ activity such as this. Really has my creative juices flowing for various uses, thank you!

Hi Sarah and Joy,

So typically, this particular assignment and professor asks for a two-day instruction session. This group is usually an undergraduate writing comp class focusing on academic research. Many of our students haven’t every used the databases and sometimes don’t know what the difference in terminology is between a database, article, and journal. So we have to give a brief explanation of that. I like to use an analogy where Hulu is the database, a tv show is the journal, and the season and episode title is the article, so students understand that hierarchy.

Additionally, the first day is spent going over search strategies (Boolean Operators, Truncation, Limiters/Filters in the databases, explanation of keywords and subject terms, etc.). This part of the instruction typically lasts a good 30-40min. as we provide our own searches to get results and then go over the different types of results (HTML Full Text, PDF, Interlibrary Loan, Check for Full Text) and how to save articles and look at the articles record for cataloging search terms, abstract, etc.

So if it is a one-day instruction, we don’t have the opportunity to really assist with the research. However, for two-day sessions, the second day is spent with the students researching in breakout rooms of similar topics while we pop in and out to assist.

Hope this helps!

Thank you so much for sharing! Do you share links to the Google Docs with the instructor/class after your session so students can refer back to their work later? Have you heard about students using these notes in any practical way after the session or do you view it as just a replacement for the whiteboard with no additional longevity? (I do an activity in Slides where we do a group notes document and I am always interested in how people are using these tools!)

Hello Mary-Michelle,

We post the link in the chat for students to access. From my experience, if you click on the link it shows up in your shared drive or your “shared with me” drive on Google, so students can reference it that way. Otherwise, we wait for instructors to ask for the Google Docs, though they never have, even though I’ve noticed some activity occur on the documents at a later time. Unfortunately I’ve not heard anything about the aftermath of the session, which I hope to remedy some day. For now, it is used mostly as a replacement since we were unable to have in-person classes for the longest time and, even now, some professors prefer to have virtual classes. Hope this helps!


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