Are Google Docs comments the right assessment tool for education? Pedagogy says no.

Teachers commonly use Google Docs for formative assessment.
Common practice doesn't mean best practice.
Are Google Docs comments the right assessment tool for education? Pedagogy says no.


With 150 million users of G Suite for Education, Google Docs might be the most popular word processor app in Education. Teachers and students of all grade levels use it for written coursework because it is easy and free to use.

One of its most used features is its commenting tool. While it was created to help businesspeople collaborate on shared documents, teachers have cleverly repurposed it for the provision of formative feedback to students. This makes sense.

To teachers, Google Docs comments should look and feel familiar. They are the digital equivalent of handwritten feedback on paper submissions.

But is that a good thing?

With the increasing ‘Googlification’ of our classrooms, it is important to assess whether these tools are helping or harming education. In this post, Google Docs comments are examined through a pedagogical lens to answer the question: are Google Docs comments the right assessment tool for Education?

Our analysis revealed some shocking insights. Let’s see if you agree.

Are Google Docs Comments a Complete Assessment Tool?

Assessment is not a single task. It is a process with many, perhaps even too many tasks.

From rubric creation to final grades, assessment is easily the most time-consuming part of a teacher’s job.

Do Google Docs comments help teachers to perform the entire assessment process? Or do they force teachers to use multiple tools? Let’s go through key steps in the assessment process to find out.

Rubric Creation

Rubrics are essential to the assessment process, especially for high-stakes assignments. They help students understand expectations and provide a fair assessment structure for teachers.

So, do Google Docs comments help teachers create rubrics? Since it is a commenting tool, we know the answer is a definite ‘no’.

Formative Feedback

In the research paper, “Student engagement and the role of feedback in learning”, adjunct lecturer, Ann Wilson, tells us we must ensure that each learner can understand and make meaning from feedback.

Educators must make feedback accessible. This includes different formats such as text, text-to-speech, and voice feedback, to meet the differing needs of their students.

Text feedback

Teachers find it convenient and easy to provide text feedback using Google Docs comments. They simply select text in the student’s submission, type a comment and save it.

Students will see it as a monochrome highlight in their assignment, with an all-text comment that they might read and a “resolve” button they might click to remove it from their submission.

Google Docs Comments

Text-to-Speech Feedback

An increasing proportion of students report a preference for text-to-speech feedback. They find it more effective and accessible than text feedback.

Unfortunately, Google Docs comments cannot be listened to as an audio file. For these students, therefore, teachers will have to adopt another tool to offer students text-to-speech or risk their disengagement.

Voice Feedback

66.7% of surveyed students said they would prefer voice feedback from teachers, according to the SUNY research paper, Personalizing Feedback Using Voice Comments.

This too is impossible with Google Docs comments, so teachers will be forced to use yet another tool to record and add voice feedback to student submissions.

Real-Time Assessment Intelligence

To engage students in the digital classroom, teachers need to know more about each student’s needs, efforts and skills during assessment.

Did the student engage in prior feedback? Did they plagiarize the work of others? Are they meeting the skill level requirements of their grade?

To help students adjust and hit their learning goals, teachers need to receive this type of assessment intelligence, in real-time, during the assessment process.

Google Docs comments do not provide teachers with any assessment intelligence.


Grading, or summative assessment, is one of the last tasks in the assessment process. This is the step on which teachers use their rubrics to create a final score and upload it into the school’s gradebook – usually a feature of a Learning Management System (LMS) or Student Information System (SIS).
This is yet another function that the Google Docs comments feature does not provide.

Teachers will need to use an additional tool to record their grading and then will likely have to manually input their grading data into their gradebook because the Google Docs comments feature is not integrated with any LMS or SIS.

After working through all the tasks in the assessment process, it is clear that the Google Docs comments is an incomplete toolset, significantly increases teacher workloads and can increase student disengagement.

Feature Comparison | Google Docs Comments vs JoeZoo

How Much Teacher Time Do Google Docs Comments Free?

To increase student performance, time with teachers has two to three times the impact of any other school factor, according to the “Teachers Matter” report from Rand Education and Labor.

We calculated how much teacher time is freed for student learning when teachers use Google Docs comments. The results were eye opening.

If a teacher uses Google Docs comments for formative feedback, they can expect to spend at least 18.9 hours, per class assignment, completing all of their assessment tasks.

It’s shocking to find that the popular choice of using Google Docs comments costs so much teacher time. However, our findings are echoed in the post, “Truth about Teacher Overtime” by Shannon McLoud, a highschool teacher from Rhode Island, and also in the article “Teachers spend a whole day on marking each week” by Education Technology.

Here is the math, using the average US class size of 25.5 students:

30 Minutes to Create a Rubric

Since teachers cannot use Google Docs comments to create rubrics, they use the table feature within Google Docs. Teachers reported creating the rubric can take approximately a half an hour.

15 Minutes to Copy and Distribute a Rubric

Teachers often print and hand out physical copies of the rubric. This can take up to 15 minutes and $3.31 to photocopy and distribute. This doesn’t even include the walk through of the rubric in-class.

8.5 Hours Adding Feedback

Adding formative feedback with Google Docs comments is easy for teachers, but like handwritten feedback, it is manual and repetitive.

7 Hours for Grading

By using a Google Docs table as a rubric, teachers will need to grade by hand or use an additional tool. For teachers who grade by hand, interviews revealed that they would spend approximately 15 minutes reading a 300-word student submission (6.4 hours per class) plus an additional hour and $3.31 reprinting rubrics for grade input.

1 Hour for Gradebook Input

Once all submissions have been hand graded, teachers who use Google Docs comments will have to spend an additional hour inputting grading data into their school’s gradebook.

In one of our tests, we asked a teacher to assess a class of 300-word student submissions. The teacher added an average of 10 comments, each of approximately 20 words in length, and spent about 5 minutes typing, which aligned with the average adult speed of 40 words per minute. For a class of 25 students, this added up to 2.1 hours of typing to the 6.4 hours spent reading student submissions.

However, based on interviews, teachers tend to type the same comments up to 30% of the time, across all submissions. By choosing Google Docs comments, all teachers could be wasting up to 40 of these typing minutes per round of feedback.

Effort Comparison | Google Docs Comments vs JoeZoo

Does Google Docs Comments Help Teachers Differentiate Student Instruction?

If you are an educator, differentiated instruction is likely not a new term for you – education has been questing for it for years.

To achieve differentiated instruction, teachers must receive data about the student’s capabilities, efforts and needs when assessing.

To increase each student’s use of feedback, teachers would need real-time data. Data on which format and length of comments the student prefers is essential, so teachers can then adapt. If they wanted to reward a student’s self-editing skills, teachers would need to see their writing process and efforts made at each step.

Google Docs comments provide none of this intelligence and prevent us from reaching our shared goal of differentiated student instruction.

Are Google Docs Comments a Student-Centred Tool?

Student-centred learning is one that “shifts the focus from teachers to students, with the end goal of developing students who are autonomous and independent”, according to Education Corner.

Based on that definition, Google Docs comments do not enable student-centred learning. The comments are driven by teachers not students, increasing students’ dependence rather than independence.

Pedagogy recommends that we color-code and chunk feedback to increase student understanding. Google Docs comments run counter to both of those recommendations.

It uses monochrome highlights and unstructured text comments that are inaccessible as text-to-speech or voice. It is very likely that a document filled with these ‘blobs’ will overwhelm most students, causing them to disengage.

Clearly, choosing Google Docs comments for formative feedback prevents Education from reaching its student-centred learning goal.

Do Google Docs Comments Help Students Improve Essential Writing Skills?

According to the Nation’s Report Card, we have been in a writing skills crisis since 1998.

For the past 20 plus years, less than 30% of our Grade 12 graduates have had the written communication skills required for college and careers.

The assessment tools we have been using, Google Docs comments included, have been perpetuating this writing skills crisis. Here are the reasons why.

Self-Editing Skills

While Google Docs does include a spelling and grammar checker, most schools disable that feature. It was not designed for learners and undermines their acquisition of self-editing skills.

Unless teachers choose to provide self-editing feedback in their comments, which will in turn increase their already heavy workload, students will never acquire this essential writing skill.

Writing Feedback

Students can receive writing feedback through Google Docs comments, but only if their teachers choose to give it.

Our interviews with teachers who use Google Docs comments revealed that because the assessment process is already so time consuming, they often forgo giving writing feedback on student submissions.

Writing Frequency

Research has revealed that students get too few opportunities to practice and build essential writing skills in primary and secondary school – a major factor in our writing skills crisis.

When interviewed, teachers who use Google Docs confirmed that they knew  their students were getting too few opportunities to write. Their reason was that they were already overwhelmed by their assessment workload.

Are Google Docs Comments the Right Assessment Tool for Education?
At first glance, Google Docs comments seem like a logical assessment tool for Education.

It has the familiarity of handwritten feedback on paper and is easy to use. But, when examined through a pedagogical lens, it falls short in three critical areas:

Using Google Docs comments significantly adds to the overwhelming workload of teachers, a fact made worse in this age of COVID-19.

They do not help teachers personalize their assessments. There is not actionable information provided about each student’s capabilities, efforts or needs. It runs counter to pedagogy and is preventing us from achieving a shift of assessment from being teacher to student-centred.

The widely used feature of the most popular word processor app might actually be hurting all – teachers, students and schools. And they deserve better.

Clearly, Google Docs comments are the wrong assessment tool for Education.

Carl Mascarenhas

  • PUBLISHED May 18, 2021