The Paperless Classroom with Google Docs

by - Eric Curts

Table of Contents


How to name documents and folders

How to choose sharing options: Edit, Comment, and View

How to share a document with specific people

How to share a document as a link

How to use folders

How to create folders for your documents

How to put your documents in folders

How to share a folder

How to use folders as staff handout folders

How to use folders as student turn-in folders

How to use forms to turn in assignments

How to create and use templates

How to use comments in the grading process

How to use revision history

Use Voice Comments


Google Docs provides many ways to go paperless through sharing and collaboration options. There is not just one single right way to use Google Docs for a paperless classroom.  Rather there are many tools and features that can be used on their own or in combination to meet your varying needs. This guide will cover many of the most common ways that Google Docs can help teachers and students move away from paper and into a digital-only environment.

How to name documents and folders

Since many students and staff may be sharing documents and folders with other students and staff, it could get confusing quickly when seeing all of the shared files in Google Docs. One thing that can help is to agree upon a common naming scheme for files and folders. A good name should tie the item to a time (year), a class (perhaps period), who created it (your name), and what it is (a certain paper, projector, or turn-in folder).

You may want to come up with your own specific way for files and folders to be named, but if not, below are some helpful recommendations:

For documents and folders, include in the name:

For example a document may be named: 2014-07-Smith John-Research Paper

A shared folder may be named: 2014-02-Doe Jane-Turn-in Folder

The most important aspect of a good naming system is that the files and folder names should make sense to both the person who created them, and the people they are being shared with.

How to choose sharing options: Edit, Comment, and View

When you choose to share a document through Google Docs, you get to decide how much access that person has to your document.  Typically you can choose up to three different options for the level of access you give. The access you choose will depend why you are sharing the document with the person.

  • Can edit - If you choose this option, then the other person is able to make changes to the document. This is good for group work, where several people are collaborating on the project. This can also be a good match when turning in an assignment to a teacher, if the teacher needs to be able to mark up the document in detail.


  • Can comment - If you choose this, then the other person will not be able to edit the document, but they will be able to leave comments in the document. These comments will not print out with the document, but will be visible on screen. This is useful for peer review, such as when a student needs another student to read their work and leave comments on it. This is also a good fit when turning in an assignment to a teacher, if the teacher just needs to leave feedback and grading information as comments.


  • Can view - If you choose this option, then the other person is only able to view the document. This is good for material that simply needs to be read (handouts, syllabi, sample work, etc.) or for documents that will serve as templates, where the user will make a copy of the document that they can modify as their own.


How to share a document with specific people

Probably the most common and simplest way to go paperless is to share a document with another person or group of people using the big blue Share button in the top right corner of a document. This is a good option to use if you are sharing the document with specific people or groups of people that can entered by email address. This is also best for a one-shot or unique sharing need, and not for when you do plan to share a lot of documents with the same people over a period of time. For those situations, see how to use folders for sharing instead.

  1. With the document open, click the Share button in the top right corner
  2. This will open the Sharing settings window


  1. In the middle of the window there will be a box labeled People
  2. Click in that box and type in the people or groups that you want to share the document with. This can include individual people or groups of people identified by a Google Group email address.  The address book will find matches based on what you type.
  3. Next click the Can edit button to pick whether the users can edit or comment on or view the file
  4. Optionally click in the Add a note box to include directions or additional information for the recipients
  5. Finally, click the Send button
  6. All of the recipients will now get an email message indicating that the document has been shared with them
  7. For individuals, the document will also automatically show up in their Incoming folder in their Google Drive
  8. For groups (Google Group email addresses), users will only get an email notification. Note: The document will not show up in their Docs list until they open it for the first time.

In the future you can always return to the Sharing settings window to change or remove people

  1. Click the Share button again to return to the Sharing settings window.
  2. Click on the list of names under the People box.
  3. This will open a window showing all of the people the file is shared with.
  4. Next to each user’s name will be a drop-down menu to switch between Can edit, Can comment, and Can view.
  5. Also there will be an X that you can click to remove that person’s access entirely.


How to share a document as a link

Instead of sharing a document with specific people, you can instead share the document with anyone who has the link to the document. This is useful when you are not sure of everyone in the target audience, or do not have an easy way to include them through an email group. In such a case you will need to be able to share a special link with these people.

  1. With the document open, click the Share button in the top right corner
  2. This will open the Sharing settings window.
  3. Click the Advanced link in the bottom right.
  4. In the Who has access section,  click Change…
  5. A new window will open up where you can change the privacy settings.


  1. You can now pick one of five sharing settings:
  1. Public on the web - Anyone can find and view the document.
  2. Anyone with the link - You will get a web link for the document to share with others (through email or posting online).  Anyone who has that link can click it and view your presentation.
  3. [your school domain] - Anyone logged in with their school Google account can find and view the document.
  4. People at [your school domain] with the link - Only people with the link who also are logged into their school Google account can view the document.
  5. Private - Only you can access the document.
  1. You can also control whether users can make changes to your document by clicking the Access setting at the bottom and choosing Can view, Can comment, or Can edit.
  2. Click Save when done.
  3. You will now return to the Sharing settings window but now you will have a link for the document that you can share with others.


  1. To copy the link, click on the link to select it, then right-click and choose Copy.
  2. If you need to make any changes to sharing, you can repeat the process above and choose different settings at any time.

Since the link for the document will be very long and confusing, you will need to consider how to share it with others.  Options might include:

How to use folders

If you need to share documents frequently with the same people over a period of time, you will find that using folders will make the process easier. First, we will cover what folders are and how to manage them, and then we will look at how to use them specifically for sharing documents.

How to create folders for your documents

In Google Docs, folders can be used to organize your documents. However unlike the normal idea of folders, you can put a document into multiple folders at once in Google Docs (similar to how you can put multiple labels on one Gmail message.) To create a folder, do the following:

  1. First go to your main Google Drive screen and select where you wish to create the folder.
  2. If it will be a top level folder, simply click on My Drive on the left side of the Drive screen.
  3. Or if it will be a sub-folder, first drill down through your folders until you have opened the one where the new folder will go.
  4. Click New, then Folder.
  5. Finally type in a name for your new folder.


How to put your documents in folders

Once you have created folders, you can now put your documents in the folders to keep them organized.  Just like email labels, however, you can put a document in as many folders as you like, not just one.  There are several ways to put a document in a folder. However, it is important to understand the difference between moving a document to a folder and adding a document to a folder:

Based on the method chosen below you may be able to move, add, or do both in each situation:

Method #1 - Move to a folder through normal Drag and Drop

  1. Go to your normal Google Drive screen and locate the document.
  2. Also, expand out your folders to expose the destination folder as needed.
  3. Click and hold down the mouse button on the document you wish to move to a folder.
  4. Now with the mouse button held down, drag the document to the destination folder you want on the left side of the Google Drive screen.
  5. Put the document on top of the folder you want to move it to, and then let go of the mouse button.
  6. The document will now be moved to that folder and removed from any of your other folders (but will not be removed from someone else’s folder, if it is their document, and they have shared it with you).

Method #2 - Add to a folder with Shift + Z

  1. Go to your normal Google Drive screen and click to select the document.
  2. Now press both the Shift and Z keys on your keyboard.
  3. This will open the Add To window.
  4. Scroll through the folder list and click to select the desired folder.
  5. Now click the Add button at the bottom.
  6. The file will now be in both its original location and also in the new folder you have chosen.


Method #3 - Move with the Move To option

  1. Go to your normal Google Drive screen and locate the document.
  2. Right-click on the document and then choose Move to ... from the pop-up menu.
  3. This will open a window where you can browse through all of your folders.
  4. Select the folder where you want to move the file and then click the Move button.


Method #4 - Organize from inside the Document

  • You can also move or add your document to a folder with the document already opened.
  • Look to the right of the document title at the top of the screen, and click on the  Move to folder icon.


  • This will open a window where you can expand all of your folders.

  • To move your file into a new folder, simply select the folder and click the Move button.

  • If you want to put the file into multiple folders, hold down your Ctrl key when clicking on the folders to choose more than one.  

  • Now when you click the Move button, the file will be added to all of the checked folders.


How to share a folder

Instead of just sharing individual documents, you can also choose to share an entire folder with others.  If you do this, then everything inside the folder will be automatically shared with those people.  If later you add a new file to the folder, it will automatically be shared to those people as well.

Sharing a folder is useful if you plan to share multiple files routinely with the same person or group of people.  For example, this could include a project you are working on, or a handouts folder, or an assignment turn-in folder.


  1. To share a folder, right-click on the folder and choose Share… from the pop-up menu.
  2. This will open the normal Share with other window.
  3. Now follow the same instructions for how to share a document from earlier sections. This includes sharing with people and email groups, changing privacy settings, and giving rights to view or edit.
  4. Note: When sharing folders there is one extra permission setting for editors. By default editors of a folder are also allowed to add new people to the folder and to change the permissions on the folder. If you do not want editors to have these rights, then you will need to do the following:
  5. Click Advanced at the bottom of the Share with others window.
  6. The click Change at the bottom of the Sharing settings window.
  7. Now select the option for Only the owner can change the permissions. and then click Save.


  1. When you have finished sharing the folder, the folder will show up for the users in their Incoming folder in Google Drive.

How to use folders as staff handout folders

One good use for shared folders is to create a handout folder for your class. This would be a folder where you can put any documents you want your students to have access to, but not be able to change. These would be read-only documents for your students. Examples would include handouts, study guides, and templates that they could make a copy of to edit their own version. To make a handout folder, do the following:

How to use folders as student turn-in folders

Another good use for shared folders is for students to create turn-in folders for a teacher. Then to turn in an assignment, the student simply adds the document to the turn-in folder and it will be available to the teacher. Here is how turn-in folders are made and managed:

Now as the teacher, all of the students’ shared folders will show up in your list of shared folders under Shared with me in Google Drive. If you have a lot of students, this can be quite a mess. So the best thing to do now is to organize the students’ folders. This is a one-time process you will need to do at the start of the year.

Anytime a student needs to turn in an assignment, they simply add it to their turn-in folder for your class period and the document will now be available for you to access.

How to use forms to turn in assignments

Another creative option for managing the submission of documents is to use Google Forms to collect the needed information. The form does not take the place of sharing the documents, but instead helps you as a teacher to manage the shared assignments. Here’s how it works:

Teacher makes a form:

  • First, the teacher needs to create a Google Form that will be used to collect the assignment turn-in information.
  • The teacher may want to make a form for each class period to help keep things organized.
  • Form questions should include: Last Name, First Name, Assignment title (use a Choose from a list question), and  URL for assignment.
  • The teacher may also want to check the options to require the user to be signed into their school Google Apps account, and to automatically collect their school username. This will add another layer of authentication.
  • The teacher will now want to share the Form link with your students through any of the normal methods (email, post on website, QR code, URL shortener, etc.)

Note: The teacher can go back in and edit the Assignment title question to add new assignments and remove old ones as needed throughout the year.

Students submit their assignment information:

Teacher uses form to manage submitted assignments:

How to create and use templates

Another great way to go paperless is to take advantage of the Google Docs template gallery. With templates you can create documents, presentations, and other files that serve as starter guides for your students. Students are not able to change your original template, but they can make their own copy of it to edit as they need.

Templates are especially useful in a couple of situation:

To create a template, do the following:

For a student (or any user) to use a template, they do the following:

How to use comments in the grading process

Google Docs allows you to add comments to the a shared document, presentation, and such.  This is a useful way to share ideas with other collaborators, or to give feedback to a student on a document you are grading. Comments that you leave on a student’s document, can be commented on by the student as well, and back and forth. This provides a way to have a conversation about the progress of a term paper, to get clarification from a student about a question, or simply to provide feedback.

  1. To insert a comment, click in the document or select the words where you want the comment to be linked
  2. Next click Insert in the top menu bar, then click Comment (you can also press Ctrl - Alt - M on your keyboard if you prefer)
  3. A comment box will appear to the right of the document, where you can type in your comment
  4. This comment will now be visible to others who share the document (such as your collaborators or the student who turned in the assignment) although the comment(s) will not display when the document is printed.
  5. Collaborators (students, you, etc.) can reply to any comment by typing in the box labeled Reply to this comment...
  6. You can also click the links to Edit your existing comment, or to Delete it.
  7. Finally you can click Resolve to close the comment from further replies.
  8. Note: You can also leave general comments that are not tied to a specific part of the document by clicking the Comments button in the top right corner of the document or presentation.

How to use revision history

When going paperless, one result is that you typically will only have one copy of a document or presentation, instead of several paper copies that may show the changes over time (such as rough drafts). It can be very beneficial to see how a student has revised a document (seeing if they have taken your suggestions), and to see which students in a group did which portions of the assignment.

Google Docs allows you to see the full revision history for a document and revert back to any earlier version if needed.

  1. Click File and then See revision history
  2. This will open a side bar on the right side of the screen where a history of changes will be listed by user
  3. If you click on any time stamp on the right, the document will show what changes were made, highlighting the changes by color based on the user
  4. If you want to go back to an earlier version of the document, click Restore this revision on the time stamp for the version you want
  5. If you need to see smaller, more detailed changes, you can click the button at the bottom that says Show more detailed revisions
  6. To exit the revision history mode, just click the X next to Document history at the top of the side bar

Use Voice Comments

Kaizena is a third-party app that allows you to highlight text, then record and attach voice comments to any shared Google Doc. You can also add text comments and links to helpful websites. This is a powerful way to provide personalized feedback to students on the documents they share with you.

You can access Kaizena in two ways:

To use Kaizena do the following:

  1. Open a shared document from your docs list on the Kaizena website.
  2. On the left side of the screen you will see the users who have access to the document. Click on the user you wish to share the comments with (such as the student who shared the document with you).
  3. Next highlight any text in the document you wish to leave a comment for.
  4. You will get a pop-up menu with three options:
  1. Voice comment - Click to record a voice comment. You may need to grant Flash permission to your microphone.
  2. Text comment - Click to type in a text comment.
  3. Resource - Click to add a helpful web link.
  1. Repeat as needed for other text in the document.
  2. When you are done adding comments, click the Send Feedback button on the left side of the screen.
  3. You can choose to alert the user of your comments in two ways:
  1. Share via Comment - Click this to add a traditional comment to the Google Doc which will contain a hyperlink for the user to click to open the doc in Kaizena and access the comments.
  2. Send Email - Or click this to send the user an email with a hyperlink for the user to click to open the doc in Kaizena and access the comments.

Note: As a user makes changes to the shared document, you can access the different versions of the document and leave comments specific to any particular version. Simply click Versions in the top right corner of the doc when opened in Kaizena to see the different versions.

View some of my other Google help guides:

For more resources see:

© 2012-2015 - Eric Curts - - - - @ericcurts

This document is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution Non-Commercial 3.0 United States license.  For more information about this license see (In short, you can copy, distribute, and adapt this work as long as you give proper attribution and do not charge for it.)

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