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Author: Curby Alexander

Any teacher will tell you that they could use more time. One way to save time is with the Google Drive suite of tools. These free apps are not only powerful in themselves, but a host of add-ons have been developed around them that increase their power. Many faculty are not aware of these add-ons, but I have found that they turn Google apps into must-use systems that save me time in my teaching. Here are three uses of Google apps that I would recommend.


Google Sheets is a cloud-based spreadsheet with most of the features of its desktop counterpart, Excel, but with added functionality through a wide variety of third-party add-ons. Google Sheets can be shared, edited collaboratively, and embedded in a Learning Management System or other web page.

One possibility Google Sheets opens up is adding leaderboards to your course. Leaderboards provide up-to-the-minute updates on top performers within a group, such as golf, music charts, and high scores on a video game. This gamification strategy can also be applied to a learning environment, and there is evidence to suggest providing students the opportunity to compete against each other for the top spot on the leaderboard improves student outcomes (Hamari, Koivisto, & Sarsa, 2014).

Not every student is inherently competitive, so this strategy may not resonate with every student. Some learners may be satisfied in knowing their scores are meeting expectations, and the leaderboard is a good way to provide feedback to students about their progress. Instructors can place themselves in the leaderboard with scores that represent baseline expectations. If students are able to stay above the instructor's line, they know they are progressing satisfactorily.

For an instructor, the information at the bottom of the leaderboard is just as important as the data on the top. In especially large classes or classes that meet only online, instructors need to know who is falling behind. Struggling students can often be guided back on track with some help from the instructor, but the instructor must first be able to identify those students. Grades are one measure of course progress, but by the time assignments are scored and grades are entered, the student is several weeks behind. A leaderboard provides more timely feedback to the instructor, who can use this tool as a way to quickly identify students who are falling behind.

Leaderboards are easy to create in a Google Sheet using a pivot table. This will allow instructors to sort and rank student data based on selected data. For more information about setting up a leaderboard in Google Sheets, refer to https://goo.gl/KSYuV8.


Google Forms allows instructors to collect a variety of data from students quickly and easily. Instructors can use this tool to poll students during class, to conduct surveys, or to assign weekly quizzes. Responses are stored in a spreadsheet, where data can be calculated, merged, or exported into another format.

Even though Google Forms is at once simple to use and incredibly powerful on the back end, it has some limitations. For instance, if a student submits a response through Google Forms, there is no way to see whether the submission was received. Unlike an LMS with a two-way interface (i.e., Instructor and Student view), Google Forms is unidirectional, with no way to view previous submissions.

However, instructors can use the FormMule add-on (http://cloudlab.newvisions.org/add-ons/formmule) to generate automated messages upon each form submission. FormMule allows the instructor to merge data from the spreadsheet back into an e-mail message to the student, and messages can be programmed to send immediately upon submission, at a specific time during the day, or manually.

An important characteristic of spreadsheets is the ability to apply calculations to large sets of data. For example, using the SUM formula will automatically add all (or selected) values in a row, which can then be applied to all subsequent rows. Instructors can choose from hundreds of formulas to perform calculations on student data submitted through a form (such as answers to a quiz), which saves time and reduces the likelihood of mistakes. The CopyDown add-on (http://cloudlab.newvisions.org/add-ons/copydown) will automatically apply formula calculations in the second row of the spreadsheet to all subsequent form submissions so instructors do not have to continually open the spreadsheet and apply the calculation to the new submissions.

When coupled with FormMule, instructors can calculate data automatically and send an immediate message to students confirming their submission. The confirmation can include such information as the time the submission was received, the score on a quiz, or a copy of the answers the students submitted for their records. Not only do students get immediate feedback from the instructor, they can also have the assurance their answers were received and a receipt to prove it.


Some instructors prefer to have students complete assignments using Google Docs rather than creating their own documents and uploading to the LMS. Google Docs has some obvious advantages over traditional word processors, such as a detailed version history, a simple interface that incorporates comments and track changes, and the ability to collaborate with multiple users at once. Students can share their documents with instructors, and when they are done with a paper, they simply quit typing and walk away. In essence, the minute the document is shared, it is also submitted.

Of course, the ability to share a document can also be a liability. If students do not share the document, the instructor does not have access. Keeping track of shared documents and following up with students who have not provided access or editing permissions can become an administrative burden many instructors would rather avoid. This constraint of Google Docs should not be a reason to deter interested instructors from this tool. Doctopus (http://cloudlab.newvisions.org/add-ons/doctopus) is a Google Sheets add-on that automatically creates documents for every student on a class roster.

After instructors have loaded their roster into Doctopus, they can decide how to share documents with students, such as creating a copy of the same assignment for all students, giving students different assignments, or adding them as editors on the same document. One convenient aspect of distributing assignments in this way is where the documents are stored: the instructor's Google Drive. The instructor owns and has continual access to the documents throughout the entire process, allowing him or her to view the latest changes, provide corrective feedback, and restrict access once the due date for the assignment has passed. An additional advantage to creating Google Docs for students with Doctopus is that the document is created from a template rather than a blank file. Instructors can provide instructions, links to resources, examples (e.g., how to format an APA citation), or an outline for the assignment within the document itself. This type of scaffolding may help students who are emerging into the realm of scholarly writing and need substantive support and guidance on their journey to becoming proficient college-level writers.

The integration of Google apps in Drive such as Sheets, Docs, and Forms presents a variety of ways to make your teaching more efficient. With a little practice, patience, and creativity, instructors can customize these tools not only to create meaningful learning experiences for students, but also to help instructors save time and effort while maintaining high-quality teaching practices.


Hamari, J., Koivisto, J., & Sarsa, H. (2014, January). Does gamification work?—A literature review of empirical studies on gamification. InProceedings of the 47th Hawaii International Conference on System Sciences, Hawaii, USA, January 6-9, 2014.

 Curby Alexander is an assistant professor of professional practice at Texas Christian University.