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When students have an opportunity to collect their own data, they make stronger connections to the curriculum, enhance their small motor skills, gain a sense of accomplishment, and become better prepared for college and the workplace.

Depending on the complexity of the lab, students may conduct one to three trials. Having students conduct four or more trials is usually poor use of instructional time, as three trials is typically more than sufficient for the students to master the data collection. Three data points, however, may not be sufficient to achieve the desired level of precision or to observe trends.  

The solution is to have each lab group collect some of the data, and then have the students share and use the data from the entire class for their analysis. Traditionally this would entail having each group write their data on the board. Then students would laboriously copy data into their lab report. Google Docs, however, offers a more efficient method of collecting and sharing class data.

A better approach to collecting and sharing data

  1. The first question should always be “What is your last name?” Note that a Form does not collect the identity or username automatically, unless your school has set up Google Accounts for all students. If you have already set up these accounts, change the Forms settings to require students to log in using their email addresses. Otherwise, you need to ask for this information each time. Asking students to include their last names will allow you to easily sort the data alphabetically by student name. 

  2. The students should input their data points without units, to facilitate the chart/graphing function. You can list the desired units in the “help text” section of the form.


In a percentage of ethanol laboratory experiment that I do with my class, lab groups were tasked with creating three different water/ethanol solutions of known concentration and measuring the density of each. My class used an alternative method to collect and study the data. They inputted their data into a Google Form (Figure 1), which then populated a spreadsheet (Figure 2), allowing for the creation of a calibration curve (Figure 3) for the entire class to use to determine the percent of ethanol in a given unknown solution.

Google Docs offers two excellent formats for data sharing. The first is to use a Google Form to collect student data. If you have never created a Google Form, you will find this video helpful. Students cannot see one another’s data until all of it has been collected and the teacher has given them access to the form. After students have input their data into a Google Form, the resulting spreadsheet can be shared with the class either in a view-only or edit mode, depending on the permission settings. Two tips for successfully using Google Forms:

  1. The first question should always be “What is your last name?” Note that a Form does not collect the identity or username automatically, unless your school has set up Google Accounts for all students. If you have already set up these accounts, change the Forms settings to require students to log in using their email addresses. Otherwise, you need to ask for this information each time. Asking students to include their last names will allow you to easily sort the data alphabetically by student name.

  2. The students should input their data points without units, to facilitate the chart/graphing function. You can list the desired units in the “help text” section of the form.

The second option is to use Google Sheets and ask students to directly enter their data into a spreadsheet. In this instance, students can see not only their classmates’ data as they input their own, but can also overwrite their classmates’ data. The teacher can use the revision history to restore the original data, if needed.

The advantage of using Google Sheets is that students can be required to log in before they can access the spreadsheet, whereas Forms access may be anonymous if desired. In fact, Sheets informs the teacher which student is responsible for each specific data point. Additionally, the data can be input into the proper columns to provide for easy graphing and analysis. Similar to using Forms, students should be directed to omit units when they input their data into the spreadsheet.

Multiple ways to input and analyze data

With either Sheets or Forms, students can easily use their cell phones, tablets, computers, or even a single shared computer to input their data. The teacher or students can use the chart function to generate a variety of graphs. Note that the chart function in Google Sheets is not as robust as the equivalent function in Microsoft Excel, although the sheet can be exported to Excel if more sophisticated statistical analysis is desired. The teacher can project the graph for a post-lab discussion to elucidate trends and discuss outliers.

With sufficient data, students can conduct statistical analysis, an important component of the math common core standards. Using Google Docs with class data is especially helpful when investigating kinetics and equilibrium to help students observe trends and perform the calculations necessary to master these sophisticated concepts.

All photo credit to Deborah Bennett