Google Docs for Study Guides, Accidental Plagiarism, and Peer Grading

We had a great faculty panel last Friday! Neil Ruud, an alumnus of UC Davis, gave an interesting presentation on the ways in which undergraduate students use Google Docs to create collaborative study documents, Sean McDonnell spoke about accidental and unintentional plagiarism, and John Yoder discussed his experiences with peer grading.

Ruud explained that, since gmail powers our student email accounts, they all have automatic access to Google Drive; it’s no surprise that they’ve taken advantage of this tool. Some students use Google Docs as an alternative to emailing multiple Word documents, or as a replacement for meeting in person. But students aren’t just using these collaborative tools to facilitate group work—Rudd explained how he and his classmates frequently constructed collaborative study guides. One student starts a Google Doc for a course and emails the link to all the other students in the class (setting the permissions so that anyone with the link can edit). Any student can contribute his or her class notes to the document, and any student can review the collected notes. Students also use these group documents to ask questions about both the content of the course and logistics (e.g., the location of the final exam).

Clearly there are benefits to this kind of collaboration, but there are also potential concerns—the owner of the document can delete the document at anytime, or make it private instead of public, and there is the potential for students to benefit from the collaboration without actually contributing.

The concern about benefiting without contribution often brings concerns about plagiarism to mind, which is exactly what the second panelist, Sean McDonnell, discussed on Friday. He explained that he’s found an alarming number of plagiarism cases among his undergraduate students. Some of these are extreme cases where students buy an essay online or ask a friend to do the work, but McDonnell is more concerned about how common it is for students to accidentally or unintentionally plagiarize.

McDonnell identified several reasons why students are lacking the proper skills to identify and avoid plagiarism, two of which I found particularly compelling. First, UC Davis doesn’t offer a course that explicitly teaches students how to conduct research. They may learn some of these skills in introductory writing courses or courses that focus on writing in their major, but there is no guarantee that every student receives this type of instruction, and we cannot assume that the instruction that does happen is consistent.

Second, instructors are often unaware of the myriad technological environments in which students operate (the Google Doc study guides is a great example!) and the ways in which those environments influence students’ writing processes. The reality is that the web has created an environment where students are researching all of the time, but they don’t call it research. The first thing most students do when they get an essay assignment is to Google the topic. Then, many students proceed to write by opening a word processor and a web browser and toggling between the two—when they run out of things to say, they search the web, and then go back to writing. It’s not too much of a stretch to realize that this approach might lead to accidental plagiarism, either by failure to cite, too close of a paraphrase, or direct copy-and-pasting.

Unfortunately, I had to leave the panel early, so I wasn’t able to hear John Yoder’s remarks, but you can learn about how he uses peer grading in his Faculty Spotlight.

If anyone who attended the meeting has additional reflections, I hope you’ll contribute by leaving a comment!

Our next Faculty Panel will be at 12pm in 1310 Surge III on November 15.

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1 thought on “Google Docs for Study Guides, Accidental Plagiarism, and Peer Grading


    (November 5, 2013 - 3:30 pm)

    This was really interesting to run across. I am a HS chemistry teacher and recently started using Google Drive in my class. The potential for collaboration is amazing (e.g. multiple people working on a presentation at the same time), but I too have been noticing how easy it is for students to go from share to consult to copy without realizing it. I think your ideas about the students always being in research mode and the myriad environments are really insightful.

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