Practicing Disciplinary Critical Thinking Skills Using Google Docs

A short video describing this teaching strategy can be seen here.

Orie Shafer, LSA-Molecular, Cellular, and Developmental Biology, wants students in his 400-level cellular neuroscience course to: (1) appreciate the incremental progression of research that leads to major break-throughs; (2) develop the skills and confidence to identify the next logical research question, given the state of the field; and (3) design the experiments to systematically test that question. In the past, Shafer had students work in small, instructor-formed groups to develop these skills. Small group discussions leveraged differences in students' backgrounds and experience and fostered deeper engagement and practice.  However, these discussions were often dominated by particular students and it was difficult for Shafer to monitor and provide feedback on discussions.

To overcome these challenges, Shafer began using Google Docs as a way for groups to track their conversations during class. They use a standard Google Docs template which includes discussion prompts provided by the instructor.  As groups collaboratively answer these questions, they must process the data presented in the journal articles they read, generate their own conceptual model of the process being studied based on the evidence, and propose the next research question that would need to be answered in order to test their model. Shafer then uses the student-generated research questions as a starting point in the next class to talk about current research in the field and the implications of that work for the models the students proposed.

Using a collaborative document that they know Shafer will read encourages more students to be involved in the conversations and Shafer finds that students engage in more thoughtful revision of their responses, leading to higher quality discussions and final products. By monitoring each group's Google Doc, Shafer can equitably observe students' discussions and provide tailored feedback without disrupting the conversations.

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