What is a spreadsheet?

In the simplest terms, a spreadsheet is an interactive computer application program used for storing, organizing and analyzing information in the form of a table. Basically it is a grid that organizes data into columns and rows, which makes it easy to display information. The cells, rows and columns can be manipulated to suit the needs of the person creating the spreadsheet. Because spreadsheets simulate an accountant’s paper ledger most see them best suited to math courses or financial institutions, and rightly so.

Spreadsheets and popularity

Educators like Roblyer and Doering agree. To them spreadsheets are useful in schools because they:

  • Save time – complete essential calculations quickly and accurately
  • Organize displays of information – ability to store information in columns makes them ideal for designing informational charts eg. schedules and attendance lists
  • Support asking “what if” questions – help people visualize the impact of changes in numbers
  • Increase motivation to work with mathematics – makes working with numbers more fun because concepts can become “graphic” (visual representation of numbers)
  • Make visual teaching demonstrations possible – efficient way of demonstrating concepts such as multiplication and percentages and numerical applications eg. electoral votes vs popular votes
  • Support student generated products – students can create neat timelines, charts, and graphs
  • Support mathematical problem solving – students can focus on higher level concepts; encourage logical thinking; develop organizational skills and promote problem solving
  • Store and allow analysis of data – students must keep track of data from classroom experiments or online surveys; spreadsheets help them organize data and analyze it
  • Project grades – students can be taught to use spreadsheets to track their own grades

Most of the points above support the fact that, because numbers and formulas are key, spreadsheets are best suited to math courses. However, science and social studies teachers see the educational value of spreadsheets as well. These courses can use spreadsheets to store and analyze scientific data (collected from labs / experiments) and important statistics or facts. The visual representation of data through timelines, charts and graphs also makes the application more appealing to educators and their students.

According to Beare (as cited in Baker & Sugden) spreadsheets have a number of very significant benefits:

Firstly they facilitate a variety of learning styles which can be characterised by the terms: open-ended, problem-oriented, constructivist, investigative, discovery oriented, active and student-centred. In addition they offer the following additional benefits: they are interactive; they give immediate feedback to changing data or formulae; they enable data, formulae and graphical output to be available on the screen at once; they give students a large measure of control and ownership over their learning; and they can solve complex problems and handle large amounts of data without any need for programming.

More than Numbers

The fact that spreadsheets are interactive and student centred makes them appealing to others as well. English-Language Arts teachers and librarians also see their value. Of course, for these individuals spreadsheets are more than just fancy calculators. These applications are useful because they can store and display factual information, track data from surveys, and develop organizational skills. Furthermore, applications like Google Docs allow students to work collaboratively.

According to educator Carolyn Thorsen a database, which is a collection of facts, allows the user to detect patterns and sort through an immense amount of data rather quickly. Combining Google form and Google spreadsheet applications allows users to create their own databases. They can collect their own factual information, organize and analyze it to meet their specific needs.

For example, Susan Simpson, a librarian, after talking to other educators who used Google forms as exit tickets and assessment surveys, realized that spreadsheets could be used as a research collection tool. Together, the class could collect data, organize it then analyze it in “real time”. Because Google Docs allows multiple users (up to 50) to work collaboratively on one document, they could build this research collection tool together. (An explanation and exemplar of her lesson can be found here.)

Another educator had students use the spreadsheet application to track a main character’s personality traits and match them to important incidents at the same time. As the students read the novel The Outsiders, they tracked how many times the character demonstrated these traits and when. In the end the students created a graphic representation of the character’s personality. (To learn more about this lesson, open the pdf file found here.)

By implementing Google Docs, a fifth grade teacher, Dominic Pirrone, created a self-grading quiz on literary terms for his students. (His example can be found here.) While another educator had his students use Excel spreadsheets to collect literary terms and definitions, then use the application to test each other’s knowledge (after scrambling the “data” in the columns) by matching the right term to the right definition. (The student exemplar can be found here.) These two individuals’ applications (and the unique working relationship between Google forms and spreadsheets) have inspired yet another variation on a theme. Middle school and high school students could generate their own self-grading terminology quizzes and test others’ knowledge as well. The collaborative nature of Google Docs allows students to build tests together or share tests with each other rather easily. Google Docs also allow students to store responses in a spreadsheet which enables them to track concepts that require further exploration or more review. This whole approach is appealing because it gives students control and / or ownership over their learning.

As you can see, there are more to spreadsheets and databases than numbers. They are only limited by the user’s imagination. Some educators steer away from these applications because of a fear of mathematics, but they would be doing their students a disservice. Google Docs user-friendly forms and spreadsheets make data collection and analysis even more accessible to educators and students. So, face your fears, and use spreadsheets now—your students will be glad you did!

For more lesson ideas and exemplars, visit my website.


Baker, J., & Sugden, S. (2007). Spreadsheets in Education –The First 25 Years. Spreadsheets in Education (eJSiE), 1(1). Retrieved from http://epublications.bond.edu.au/ejsie/vol1/iss1/2

Roblyer, M., & Doering, A. H. (2012). Instructional Software for 21st Century Teaching: Integrating Educational Technology into Teaching (6th ed., pp. 122 – 126). Boston: Pearson.

Thorsen, C. (2009). TechTactics: Technology for Teachers (3rd ed., pp. 179 – 183). Boston: Pearson Education, Inc.