Monday, January 18, 2016

6 awesome uses for Revision History

When I first started teaching (way back in BG - Before Google) when you graded a student’s paper, all you had to go on was the final paper itself. What you saw on the page was what you had to work with.

However, with Google Apps that is not the case. Google provides you with your own personal time machine in a tool called Revision History, which lets you see every change ever made to a document, when the change was made, and who made the change. This powerful tool is available in Google Documents, Slides, Sheets, and Drawings.

So how can teachers use Revision History to improve teaching and learning? See below for an overview of how the tool works, followed by six awesome ideas on how you can put this to use in your classroom.

How Revision History works

To access Revision History you need to be the owner or have edit rights to a file in Google Documents, Slides, Sheets, or Drawings.

  • With the file open, click “File” then “See revision history”. This will open a panel on the right side of the screen.
  • In the panel you will see entries for all the changes made to the document, along with the date, time, and person who made the change. Each person will have their own color code.
  • When you click on an entry, the document will refresh to show you the changes that person made, highlighted in their color code. You can also hover above the changes in the document to see the person’s name in a pop-up.
  • If you want to see the changes broken down in smaller time increments, click the triangle to the left of the entry.
  • If you want to revert the document back to an earlier version, click on the entry in the panel and then choose “Restore this revision” in the top left.
  • When done viewing the Revision History, click the arrow in the top left corner of the screen to exit and return to editing the document.

1) Track improvements

One of the most powerful uses of Revision History is to see the changes a student has made to their work as they have improved it during the course of a project. When a student turns in their first draft of a report, you may wish to add comments with suggestions for how they can improve their work. Hopefully the student will take your advice and go back to edit and revise their document based on the suggestions you made. When they re-submit the file for you to grade you can use Revision History to look at the old version and compare it to the new version. This gives you easy access to see what changes the student has made to improve their work, and how they have grown as a learner.

2) Restore previous versions

Whether intentionally or on accident, from time to time things get deleted from Docs and Slides. With a few keystrokes someone with edit rights can wipe out everything in the file. Thankfully Revision History not only tracks every change ever made, it also saves all those changes so you can restore lost work. Simply click down the list of changes in the Revision History panel until you find the spot where the important content was deleted. Now click one event further back to a time before the information was removed, and click “Restore this revision”. The file will now be returned to the state it was in before the deletion and you can continue working.

Of course sometimes you may do not want to restore the entire file, since there may be good changes that have happened since the deletion and you do not want to lose them in the restoration process. To reclaim just a small piece that was lost, you can always find the lost text, highlight and copy it, exit Revision History, and then paste the lost text back in. This way you will have the old text, but still keep all the new changes made as well.

3) View the work process

Do you know how you students handle their work during a project? Do they do a little each day? Get it all done up front? Wait until the last day? With Revision History you can look behind the scenes to see their work habits. Such information can help you to help the students see the connection between effort and results, and to help them plan and manage their time better going forward. It can also help answer questions about the low score a student received on a project they “have been working on for weeks” when Revision History shows they just started it the day before.

4) Evaluate group work

When students work collaboratively, sometimes a few will do the majority of work, while others are not very involved. Teachers may use group self-assessments to determine this, but those results may not always be unbiased. An additional tool that can help is Revision History. This allows you to see how much each member of the group contributed to the document with color coded changes for each student. Certainly that may not account for work done outside of the Doc, but it can provide some helpful data when evaluating group work.

5) Detect plagiarism / cheating

Because Revision History shows you when each change was made to a document, it can assist when investigating possible cheating or plagiarism concerns. For example, under normal circumstances you should see a new sentence written each minute or so (depending on the typing speed of the student). If you check Revision History and see that at 6:35 pm five paragraphs of text suddenly appear in the document, then that would indicate the text was copied and pasted from somewhere, perhaps inappropriately. At the least this would be worth a discussion with the student to learn more.

In addition, the time stamp on the changes show when the document was edited which can reveal other types of cheating. A particularly notable case I heard about was a parent who got caught writing their child’s paper since the time stamp for the changes was while the student was in school in gym class.

6) Investigate harassment / inappropriate use

Unfortunately students will not always conduct themselves appropriately when in an online environment. However, digital citizenship is a critical skill they will need to develop for their future schooling and employment which will certainly require collaboration and communication with others online. If a student chooses to harass another, or to write content that is offensive or obscene, Revision History is a powerful tool to go back and view those comments, even if the student deleted them after the fact. And of course, none of this should be a surprise to our students. Teachers should let students know up front that Google Apps tracks everything they type in Docs, post in Classroom, and send in Gmail. Hopefully this can help students make good choices in the first place, before Revision History has to reveal the poor choice they made.

Do you have other suggestions for how Revision History can be used in school? Please share your thoughts in the comments below!

Post by Eric Curts. Bring me to your school, organization, or conference with over 50 PD sessions to choose from. Connect with me on Twitter at and on Google+ at


  1. Thanks, great post. And if you add the DraftBack app (from the chrome webstore) a draftback icon is added to Google Docs so that you can watch your Revision History as a little short film! Number 5 on your list becomes obvious if a big glob of text suddenly appears in your film. We have been having fun with this!

  2. I just dealt with this on the post-secondary level and revision history settled the ensuing defense pretty quickly. What happens when students wise up and copy a file lent to them from a previous course, though? It's just a matter of time before I see that occur.