A collective compilation of keywords, created by students in a shared Google Sheet, provides the foundation for rich, student-led discussion and a class culture of trust and engagement.

academic technology tool

Google sheets are spreadsheets that can be edited collaboratively.

Featured Faculty:

Jen Manion
Jen Manion


Professor Manion presented about this project at the November 2019 ATS Event “Critical Analysis in Collaborative Settings with Google Apps”


In the Fall 2019 first year seminar Keywords in American Culture Professor Jen Manion used a shared Google Sheet to have students collect, define, and contextualize keywords pulled from the reading. This course also made use of a shared Google Drive to let students collect and share research materials and project drafts. 

Students selected key terms from that week’s text, in teams or individually, and entered them into the shared spreadsheet. They were encouraged to describe how the word was used in the text, and provide a definition found in the OED or other valid academic source. In class, that same team of students presented their chosen keywords and this provided the basis for the class discussion.

google sheet screenshot

In the past, Professor Manion used to assign keywords to the students. This time however, Manion shifted the responsibility on the students. Her objective was to create a learning environment for students to develop as autonomous learners.

Professor Manion reported that while giving students this level of ownership over the direction of class discussion and research topics required a leap of faith, it has proven to foster one of the most open and productive class climates she has ever experienced, with students showing a high level of engagement with the class material and an exceptional level of trust in each other.

Selecting keywords might seem like a simple task, but the process promoted metacognition as the students then reflected on and evaluated their choices. One group of students chose a word that was not obviously linked to the subject of the reading, such as a reference to the environment being “gray.” When asked to elaborate on their choice, the students said it captured something powerful about the bleakness associated with an internal struggle over one’s sexual identity.

Another group chose “citizenship” which was a central topic of the book and seemed to be straight forward, but in examining its usage in different contexts they quickly realized that the concept had a history that has been dramatically shaped by economics, race, and politics.

Accessibility Bonus

  • This practice meets many criteria of Universal Design for Learning, such as providing multiple means of engaging with the material, which increases learner motivation. Additionally, for the final assignment in this class, Professor Manion let the students choose their desired mode of representation (paper, film, performance, etc).

How to... 

Published Spring 2020 by Academic Technology Services