Assign Group Essays Using Google Docs

21st Century Skills of Collaboration and Communication in Group Essays

Writing Collaborations: Each student uses a different color ink to indicate his or her contribution to the group essay. CBennett

One of the most popular ways for students to collaborate in writing is by using the free word processing program Google Docs. Students can work on the Google Doc platform  24/7 in order to write, edit, and collaborate wherever they are multiple devices.

Schools can enroll in Google for Education which then allows students access to the different applications in Google's G suite for Education (tagline: "Tools that your entire school can use, together").

The ability for students to share in real time on multiple platforms (IOS and Android apps, laptops, desktops) increases engagement.

Google Docs and Collaborative Writing

In the classroom, a Google Document (Google Docs-tutorial here) has editing privileges that can be used in three ways for a collaborative writing assignment:

  1. The teacher shares a document with all students. This could be a template where students enter their group information;
  2. Student collaborative group shares a draft or a final document with teacher in order to receive feedback within the document;
  3. Students collaborative group shares document (and supporting evidence) with other members of the group. This will also provide opportunities for students to review materials and share feedback through comments and text changes

Once a student or teacher creates a Google Doc, other users can be  granted access to view and/or to  edit that same Google Doc. Similarly, Students and teachers can limit others in the ability to copy or share a document.

Students and teachers who are viewing or working with the document also can view all edits and additions in real-time as they are typed.  Google monitors progress on a document with timestamps to apply it in the appropriate order.

Students and teachers can share a document and users can simultaneously (up to 50 users) work on the same document. When users are collaborating on the same document, their avatars and names appear in the upper right corner of the document.

Advantages of Revision History in Google Docs

The writing process is made transparent for all writers and readers with many of the features available in Google Docs.

Revision History allows all users (and teacher) to see the changes made to a document (or a set of documents) as students work over the course of a project. From the first draft to the final product, teachers can may add comments with suggestions for improvement.  their work. The Revision History feature allows viewers to look at older versions over time. Teachers are able to compare changes the students have made to improve their work.

Revision History also allows teachers to view a document's production using time stamps. Each entry or correction on a Google Doc bears a time stamp that informs a teacher how each student handles his or her work during a project. Teachers can see which students do a little each day, which students get it all done up front, or which students wait until the last day.

Revision History gives teachers a peek behind the scenes to see student work habits. This information can help teachers show students how to plan and manage their time. For example, teachers can identify if students are working on essays in the late hours in the evening or waiting until the last minute. Teachers can use the data from time stamps to make a connection for the student between effort and results.  

The information on Revision History can also help a teacher better explain a grade to a student, or if necessary to a parent. Revision History may explain how a paper that a student claims to “have been working on for weeks” is contradicted by time stamps that show a student began a paper the day before.

Writing collaborations can also be measured by student contributions. There are group self-assessments to determine individual contributions to a group collaboration, but self-assessments may be biased. Revision History is the tool that allows teachers  to see the contribution made by each member of the group. Google Docs will  color coded the changes to a document made by each student. This kind of data can be helpful when a teacher evaluates group work.

At the secondary level, students can participate in supervised self-grading. Instead of having the teacher determine how a group's participation or project will be scored, a teacher can grade the project as a whole and then turn the individual participant grades over to the group as a lesson in negotiation. (See group grading strategies) In these strategies, the Revision History tool can be a powerful negotiating tool with which students can demonstrate to each other what grade each should receive based on their contributions to the whole project.

Revision History can also restore previous versions that, intentionally or on accident, from time to time may have been deleted. Teachers can correct those errors using Revision History that not only tracks every change ever made, but also saves all student changes so they can restore lost work. By clicking one event further back to a time before the information was removed, to “Restore this revision” can recover a document to a state before deletion.

Revision History can also help teachers investigate possible cheating or plagiarism concerns. Teachers can review documents to see how often a new sentence is added by a student. If a large amount of text suddenly appears in timeline of the document, that could be an indication that the text may have been copied and pasted from another source. Formatting changes may be done by the student to make the copied text look different.

In addition, the time stamp on the changes will show when the document was edited. Time stamps may reveal other types of cheating, for example, if an adult (parent) parent might be writing on the document while the student is already known to be occupied in another school activity.

Google Chat and Voice Typing Features

Google Docs also provides a chat feature. Student users may send instant messages while collaborating in real-time. Students and teachers can click to open a pane to chat with other users currently editing the same document. Chatting when a teacher is on the same document can provide in time feedback. Some school administrators, however, may disable this feature for use in school.

Another Google Docs feature is the ability for students to type and edit a document using Voice Typing by speaking in Google Docs. Users can select "Voice typing" in the "Tools" menu if the student is using the Google Docs in the Google Chrome browser. Students can also edit and format with commands like “copy,” “insert table,” and “highlight.” There are commands in Google Help Center or students can simply say “Voice commands help” when they’re voice typing.

Students and teachers need to keep in mind that Google’s voice dictation is like having a very literal secretary. Voice Typing may record conversations between students that they did not intend to include in the document, so they will need to proofread everything.


Group writing is a great strategy to use in the secondary classroom in order to improve 21st Century skills of collaboration and communication. Google Docs offers many tools to make group writing possible including Revision History, Google Chat, and Voice Typing.  Working in groups and using Google Docs prepares students for the authentic writing experiences they will experience in college or in their careers.