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February 24, 2015

Using Google Docs for Inquiry Based Labs

I confess: I love Google Docs!  And the more I use them, the more I love them. First, Google Docs save paper. Second, they allow me to procrastinate…I mean…develop in-class activities spontaneously as I see the need. Third, they save me lots of trips to the copy machine.

But in all seriousness…. I create a document for the students and post it to the Google Drive folder I share with them that has class handouts and solution pages. I use Google Docs for the weekly schedule, and I link the assignments and in-class activities to the schedule. If the schedule changes (e.g. we have a snow day), then I can change the Google Doc and not have to print new copies. The students also have access to the schedule 24/7 wherever they have their smartphones. Some students like to have a paper copy of labs to read and remind them of what is required, and these students can print out a copy for themselves. Some students don't need this, don't want it and would just lose it as soon as I gave it to them.

My most recent discovery is using them for inquiry-based labs. For guided-inquiry labs, I like to initially give the students very few instructions. I usually just provide a list of equipment and a guiding question. Perhaps I include a diagram if it is relevant. For the most recent rotational inertia lab, I started by posting a Google Doc that listed the task. I asked them to design a method to make measurements that would allow them to calculate the moment of inertia of a spinning T-shaped PVC apparatus (based on Connie Wells' design).  I let the students work for a double period (89 minutes) and they all came up with ways to make measurements and calculate the torque on the rod and the angular acceleration. But they all only made one measurement. They performed several trials, but they used one hanging mass to provide one torque to cause one angular acceleration.

So the second day when we met we talked about the fact that we could get a more reliable value if we used a graph to calculate the moment of inertia. We decided to plot torque versus angular acceleration, slope of which is the moment of inertia. So as soon as we decided that, I unveiled the new version of the lab in the Google Doc, with the additions and changes to the requirements in red. It took them only one period (42 minutes) to make the remaining measurements. The students opened up a Google spreadsheet, shared the file among the members of their lab group, and entered all their data so that all students in the group had access to it.

I didn't want to start the lab by telling them to plot a graph: I just wanted them to focus on what to measure and how to measure it. So I left the graph requirement off the lab to start. Once they knew how to make one set of measurements, then they were ready to make a graph. The Google document is flexible the way a paper handout is not. I can also change the analysis questions they are required to answer based on class discussions or observations of their group work.

The dynamic nature of a Google document makes it ideal for inquiry, when I don't want to give away too much of the procedure initially, but want to end up with a complete document in the end, stating the requirements of the lab. The document can evolve as the lab work evolves.


  1. Love this! I'm entirely paperless, too, and I love the flexibility of GDocs. It does my technologically-inclined teacher's heart quite a bit of good to see teachers in disciplines other than English/SS make use of GDocs; I often hear teachers focusing on what docs can't do instead of what they can do, so I was quite psyched to read this post in particular.

    Inquiry-based learning is something I would like to explore more in my English classes as well, so this is actually pushing me in a cool direction and inspiring me to think more about how Inquiry-based assignments can be structured in Google Docs. Thanks for the great post!

    1. Thanks, Mike. I don't want to mislead people, however. I am not completely paperless. I give the students paper with problems to solve, etc. But I go paperless when I just want to provide them with information. I'd love to hear what inquiry looks like in English classes! That sounds great.

  2. nice blog !! i was looking for blogs related of Physics lab equipment . then i found this blog, this is really nice and interested to read. thanks to author for sharing this type of information.