Part 2 – Using Google Docs to Build Student Engagement and Success by Involving Students in the Rubric-Creation Process

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On May 29, 2014

rubrics-cubeIn this blog post I’ll discuss how to set up a Google Doc, as well as relate some classroom best practices for this type of collaborative online exercise, including how to get students started, how to constructively guide the editing session, and how to ready the finished rubric for use. (NOTE: You will need to have a Google Apps for Education account in order to use Google Drive. Instructions for syncing your S&T account with Google Apps for Education can be found here.)

First things first – Getting your class onboard with the importance of rubrics

As an instructor, your students will tend to follow your lead. They might not always be paying attention to the material, but I promise that they are keenly aware of you and how you run your class. If you consistently use rubrics for grading, peer review, and formative development of assignments, your students will quickly realize that rubrics play an important role in determining their grades. After a short while, students who have been paying attention to how you teach will begin to expect a rubric to appear with each new assignment. This is exactly what you want to happen. Most people (students included!) are looking for an advantage; when students realize that they have the chance to develop an assignment rubric and directly affect the way their assignments are graded, you’ll have the student buy-in you need to make a collaborative rubric-building session a success.

Setting up the Google Doc for use

First you’ll want to set up a blank Google Doc that will become the rubric. To begin, navigate to Click the Create button and select “Document” from the drop-down list. This will create a new, empty Google Doc. Next, to make a rubric, you’ll need a table. Click the Insert tool, select “Table” from the drop-down list, and define an appropriate sized table for your rubric. The intended dimensions of your rubric will, of course, dictate the table size. 5×5 is a common size, but the table can always be later expanded or contracted as needed.

At this point you have created a document, but before it is ready for use the document must be shared and have full editing permissions set for users. To share the document, click the Share button in the top right-hand corner of the workspace. This will open the “Sharing settings” dialog box. Under the “Who has access” option, select the Change button, and then select the option Anyone with the link. This setting will allow anyone with the link to access the document. To allow anyone with the link to edit the document, change the Access drop-down option from “Can view” to “Can edit.”

To be (anonymous), or not to be

At this point, you’ll need to make a decision about whether you want to allow your users to be anonymous or not. If you want to mandate that students use their identities when collaborating in Google Docs, you’ll have to send students the document link in their email accounts; this can be done by using the “email all student users” tool in Blackboard. Since students use Gmail to access their email, they will already be automatically signed into all other Google services, including Docs. If you want to allow students to collaborate anonymously, simply post the link to the Google Doc in Blackboard.

Mandating that users have an identity within the Google Doc is optional; signing into the Google Doc can promote accountability, but anonymity often allows for creative freedom. In my experience, anonymity of users does not hamper the collaborative process, provided that the instructor is present and providing a moderating influence. It’s true that some students may use this anonymity to post something silly for the amusement of the class, but as an instructor it’s up to you to discourage this type of behavior. In my experience, once the initial novelty wears off, the silliness does too. Again, your students will tend to follow your lead; if you’re serious, they’ll be serious.

Getting students started

Now you have a Google Doc, and presumably, a room full of students just raring to collaborate. To get started, consider “seeding” the rubric with the learning dimensions you want to assess, and the categories into which they will be assessed. This will be dictated by the subject material. For example, in an undergraduate-level technical writing class, the learning dimensions could be items such as formatting, organization, grammar, mechanics, and reader effect. The assessment categories used will vary depending on how you want to score assignments, whether it is from weak to strong, letter grades, or some other assessment criteria. In my experience, students will have the clearest direction if you provide the initial dimensions and assessment categories; the instructor provides the framework, and the students provide the spectrum of what makes an assignment submission “good” or “bad.”

Constructively guiding the editing session

As students collaborate on the document together, you’ll need to monitor their work and provide guidance. Many students will be new to writing a rubric, and will often use very generic and insufficiently descriptive terms. For example, in a technical writing rubric intersection of “formatting” and “weak”, students may initially put something very general, such as “poor formatting.” When this happens, use it as a teaching moment. Challenge your students to come up with specifically descriptive criteria. Ask them what qualities, specifically, make for poor formatting in a document. How will we know when we see poor formatting? What are the tell-tale signs? Remind them that opinions are often subjective and fluid, but that student grades should be based on objective standards and identified best practices. Remind them to consult the textbook or lecture notes, if needed. Challenge your students to put themselves in the place of an evaluator; an assignment doesn’t get graded as “weak” because an evaluator simply knows a weak assignment when they see one, an assignment is graded as “weak” when it fails to meet specific criteria. Ensure that your students are identifying these specific criteria across the spectrum from “weak” to “strong.” This may take some instructional prodding and questioning along the lines of playing Devil’s Advocate or using the Socratic Method, but providing this type of instruction is crucial to the success of the activity.

Readying the finished rubric for use

When the student-created rubric is proclaimed to be “done”, you’ll need to do some basic version control. You can either “freeze” the document by rescinding editing permissions, or you can download a static copy of the document onto your own machine.  The purpose of this step is to ensure the integrity of the original classroom-generated document; doing so will also help preclude any malicious or humor-based editing of the document. There is an old administrative saying that goes “Trust, but verify.” In this situation, you’ve done the trusting part, but now you have to do the verification part.

After some minor copyediting and educational quality control, you should have a functional and useful rubric that was created almost entirely by your own students. Obviously, as the instructor you have the final say about the rubric; that’s a given. But when you involve students in the creation of assignment rubrics, you’re doing something profound. You’re demonstrating and reiterating to them in a very real way that the tools for success reside in their own hands. You’re empowering your students to take ownership of the measures of success and failure; instead of students being passive agents who are simply acted upon in your classroom, you’re turning them into active and engaged scholars with the ability and means to control their own academic destinies. And, in all probability, your students will enjoy using a powerful multi-author collaborative tool such as Google Docs to generate a document—it really is kind of cool to see so much cognitive activity happening all at once on a single page!

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