Designing Assignments with Google Forms

Over the last academic year, I’ve gotten a lot of mileage designing online assignments using Google Forms. I’ve typically seen them used for event RSVP systems, but apparently if you’re creative about how you use sections and multiple-choice questions and data validation, you can use Google Forms to ensure that students work through a particular series of exercises, and can even offer targeted feedback along the way.

There are two particular techniques that I’ve gotten the most mileage out of. The first one is an approach I’m calling the multiple choice maze. This is a Google Form that’s a series of multiple choice questions. Each time you provide a wrong answer, the form takes you to a page with either a hint or an explanation about why that answer is incorrect, followed by a link back to the previous page. The form can only be submitted on the last page, which ensures that students have to answer everything correctly before they can submit the assignment.

You can try out an example multiple choice using this link.

There are a number of really nice advantages to using a multiple-choice maze for an assignment. First, it’s a highly scalable way to make sure that everyone in the class is on the same page about something. When I last taught CS106B, I used a multiple choice maze to make sure that the students were familiar with the Honor Code policies for the course; we asked a series of multiple choice questions about what actions were and were not permissible, and only allowed students to submit the assignment by getting all the answers right. Second, it’s an effective and lightweight way to make sure students are on top of lecture material. I sent the spring quarter CS103A students a multiple choice maze assignment every Wednesday evening covering material from the week’s two lecture meetings and specifically asked questions that required them to exercise the skills and concepts we’d taught. Because the feedback is automatic and customizable, students can quickly size up whether their understanding of the concepts is where it needs to be and can get refreshers and reminders on topics that subject. Finally, since everything is handled through Google Forms, once all things are said and done we have a reliable way to determine who’s completed the assignment, since we have timestamps for all of the submissions and can ask for names.

Once you’ve gotten the hang of it, it’s not too hard to assemble a multiple choice maze. For example, here’s the internal view of the first question from the form linked above:

Screenshot from 2017-08-10 17-29-48

Here, I have a multiple-choice question. It’s set to required so that anyone working through the form has to answer it. In the dropdown menu in the bottom corner of the question, I’ve checked the Go to section based on answer option, which lets me have each question jump to a different section in the form. As you can see, the three wrong answers all link to Section 2 (titled “Oops! That wasn’t quite right.”) and the correct answer links to Section 3 (“Some Exposition!”). That way, if you answer correctly, you get taken to a section where we can move on to the next question, and if you answer incorrectly, you get taken to a different section where we can explain why that answer is wrong. Here’s what Section 2 looks like on the back-end:

Screenshot from 2017-08-10 17-29-08

Notice that there are no questions in this section and that the section is purely text describing how to approach the problem. (I’ve never taught addition of fractions, so I suppose that this is probably not a very good explanation… sorry!) Importantly, the After section 2 option, which controls which section to visit after seeing this section is set to Go to section 1, which is the section containing the initial multiple-choice question. That way, if you get the answer wrong, you’ll get this nice helpful text and then get warped back to the question so you can make another guess.

We can take this a step further by creating questions where each wrong answer goes to a separate screen with a follow-up. For example, here’s the back-end view of the second question from the list:

Screenshot from 2017-08-10 17-29-20.png

Notice how each wrong answer goes to its own individual section, each of which is designed like the one above to warp back to this question.

The second approach I’ve found useful for making Google Form assignments is what I’m calling a find the hidden number assignment.

Last time I taught CS106B, I wanted students to get more familiarity using the debugger over the course of the quarter and figured a good way to do this would be to create a debugging assignment. For the very first assignment of the quarter, I took a standard program we’ve given out for a while that computes a rolling hash code, then designed an assignment that asked students to single-step through the hash code computation on a specific input. At some point in the single-stepping, I asked students to write down one of the numbers that was generated at an intermediate step. The Google Form for the assignment then required students to enter that number in order to move on to the next part of the assignment (and, therefore, the “Submit” button.)

Here’s a demo of what the form might look like. The secret number is 137.

The main advantage of setting up an assignment like this is that it functions as a lightweight “proof-of-work” system. Students need to show that they did some amount of work – which you can customize – in order to receive credit for the assignment. In my case, I was able to use this system to ensure that (in principle) everyone in the class had successfully gotten their IDE and debugger set up and were able to run programs and step through them in the debugger.

Setting something like this up isn’t too hard and just requires you to enable data validation and to choose the “Equal to” option:

Screenshot from 2017-08-10 17-43-41

Are these tools perfect for the job? No. But do they work well? Evidence seems to suggest that they do! The multiple choice maze I set up for the Honor Code seemed to work well; we had way fewer copied assignments submitted the quarter we deployed it than what we usually see, and more students seemed to know how to use the debugger.

I’ll probably keep using this technique in the future (once the forms are set up, it’s not at all hard to copy them from quarter to quarter). Let me know if you’re using anything along these lines or find this approach useful or interesting!

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