Tuesday, February 7, 2017

Have Students Build Learning Databases with Google Sheets

Google Sheets is an amazingly flexible tool, allowing you to randomly generate writing prompts, create pixel art, and discover mathematical properties. Another great use for Google Sheets is for students to create interactive learning databases.

"What exactly is that?" you ask.

Here's the idea. While in your class, students have to process a large amount of data. Maybe it is:
  • Characters in the novel they are reading
  • Animals in their elementary science class
  • Careers they are exploring in high school
  • Countries of the world they are studying
  • Artists and the works they created
  • Properties of geometric shapes
Using Google Sheets your students can
  • Collect important details as they are learning, and build their own database of information, either individually or collaboratively. 
  • Once complete, students can use the sorting and filtering features in Sheets to answer questions about the content they have been learning.
See below for several examples from a variety of subject areas, as well as directions on how to build these spreadsheet learning databases and use the sorting and filtering tools.

Example: Characters from a Novel

When students read a novel for school, there are a lot of characters to keep track of. This includes who they are, how they are related to each other, what they do, what changes they go through and more. It can be a lot of keep track of and make sense out of.

One great way to manage all this info, make connections, and answer questions is by using a Google Sheet to collect character information. For this example I used the powerful book "Wonder" by R. J. Palacio.

Choose Your Questions

To begin this process start by deciding what information should be collected. This could be something the class brainstorms and decides, or could be details you choose ahead of time for the students. For the book "Wonder" the items I chose were:

  • Character name
  • Character age/grade
  • Character gender
  • Is the character part of Augie's family?
  • Is the character nice to Augie?
  • Is the character mean to Augie?
  • Does the character change over the course of the novel?
  • Does the character show up in Part 1 of the novel?
  • Does the character show up in Part 2 of the novel?
  • Does the character show up in Part 3 of the novel?
  • Does the character show up in Part 4 of the novel?
  • Does the character show up in Part 5 of the novel?
  • Does the character show up in Part 6 of the novel?
  • Does the character show up in Part 7 of the novel?
  • Does the character show up in Part 8 of the novel?
  • Your own notes about the character

Depending on the novel being read, these questions could be very different. Students might even want to add more questions as they read through the novel and come up with new ideas.

Complete the Sheet

Once you have the questions, you can work on the Sheet:

  • Create a Google Spreadsheet as normal.
  • Add the questions in the first row, one question per column. You may want to abbreviate the questions to save space.
  • I would recommend "freezing" the first row so your headings will always stay at the top of the sheet when scrolling, sorting, or filtering later. To freeze the top row, click "View" in the top menu bar, then "Freeze", then "1 row".
  • Now as the student reads the novel, they will add characters to the spreadsheet, one character per row.
  • The student will fill in the columns with information about that character.
  • Some columns may not be able to be filled in right away, but may need to wait until the end of the story.
  • Each student can have their own Sheet to fill in, or this could be a collaborative activity where the entire class builds the spreadsheet database together.

Click the link below to get your own copy of the spreadsheet I competed for the book "Wonder":

Sorting and Filtering

Taking the time to complete the character spreadsheet will really help students to collect, organize, and remember important information from the novel.

However, in addition to that benefit, the real power comes now that the database has been built. At this point students can use the spreadsheet to make connections, draw conclusions, and answer questions.

Two tools that can help with this are sorting and filtering.


A common task when using a spreadsheet is to sort the records based on selected data. For example in a spreadsheet you could sort by:
  • Age - to group the different characters together based on their age
  • Life expectancy - to sort animals in a life science spreadsheet
  • Literacy rate - to sort countries in a social studies spreadsheet
  • Salary - to sort jobs in a career search spreadsheet

To sort a spreadsheet, do the following:
  • Click in one cell inside the column you want to sort.
  • Next click "Data" in the top toolbar.
  • Choose "Sort sheet by column A to Z" to sort alphabetically, or numerically from low to high.
  • Choose "Sort sheet by column Z to A" to sort reverse-alphabetically, or numerically from high to low.
  • The rows in the sheet will now be rearranged based on the sort.


Another tool to use with a set of data is filtering. This allows you to choose one or more criteria to match, which then temporarily hides any rows that do not match those conditions. Filtering can be a powerful tool to take a large set of information and reduce it down to just the rows that match your interest. With this you could answer questions such as:
  • Which characters go through a change over the course of the story?
  • Are there any characters that are both nice and mean to Augie?
  • Are there any adults who are mean to Augie?

Here is how you use filtering:
  • Click "Data" in the top toolbar.
  • Choose "Filter" from the drop-down menu.
  • Now each column will get a little arrow in the top right corner.
  • Click the filter arrow for the characteristic you want to filter by.
  • You will now get a drop-down menu where you can check or uncheck the values you want to show.
  • Rows that do not match the values you select will be hidden.
  • You can repeat this process to filter by multiple columns to further reduce the rows shown.

For example, if you filter the "Age" column to only show "adult", and then filter the "Mean" column to show "Y", you will get a list that only shows adults who were mean to Augie. In this case that brings up Mrs. Albans, which could spark some great discussion in class about how her attitude may have affected her son Julian, who arguably is the cruelest person to Augie in the entire story.

When done filtering, you can click "Data" and "Turn off filter".

Other Examples

Besides the characters in a novel, you could have students create interactive databases in Google Sheets for topics in any subject. Below are just a few examples.


In science class students could each research an animal and then fill in all the data for their animal in a shared class spreadsheet. Here is an example spreadsheet:

Possible questions to ask and investigate:

  • What animals live the longest?
  • What is a mammal they lays eggs?
  • Filter to show all the mammals in the list. What characteristics do all mammals have in common?


Have students research possible careers they may be interested in. They could collect information on salary, expected job growth, educational requirements, and more. Here is a sample spreadsheet:

Possible questions to ask and investigate:

  • What careers pay the most?
  • Which careers will have the most job growth in the coming years?
  • Of the careers that do not require a college degree, which ones pay the best?

4-Sided Shapes

A student could record all of the required characteristics for all the different types of 4-sided shapes. This could include how many sides are parallel, if there are right angles, how many sides are equal, and such. Here is a sample spreadsheet:

Possible questions to ask and investigate?

  • Which shapes have the most restrictions?
  • Which shapes have the least restrictions?
  • Which shapes can't also be categorized as other shapes?


Making sense out of a large amount of data is a powerful skills for students. No matter what subject you teach, your students could benefit from creating a Google Sheets database to record the key characteristics, facts, details, and information about the topics they are learning. Once all the information is collected, your students will be able to organize, recall, sort, and filter it to find connections, answer questions, and understand the content better.

If you try this with your students, please consider sharing what the topic was, what data was collected, and how students were able to use the information to answer questions.

If you would like to learn more about creative uses of Google Sheets in all subject areas, feel free to join me for my free webinar on February 9th:

Google Sheets Activities for all Subjects
February 9, 2017 - 3:30pm to 4:30pm EST
Webinar link - http://ti.apps.sparcc.org/videopd/20170209-sheets-activities (click to register and watch live webinar)
Description: Google Sheets is not just a tool for crunching numbers. It is a powerful tool for learning, inquiry, exploration, and inspiration in any subject area. In this session we will take a look at several practical activities for a wide range of content areas including random writing prompts, flash cards, educational games, student-created learning databases, art and creativity, and of course analyzing data to draw conclusions and make predictions.

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 twitter.com/ericcurts and on Google+ at plus.google.com/+EricCurts1

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