Efficient Spreadsheets in the Classroom – Helpful Tips for Teachers

This is the first part in a series on beginner tips for using spreadsheets to help teachers be more efficient in the classroom.

Common Digital Tools

google docs google slides and google sheets
Teachers understand Google Docs & Google Slides, but not so much with Google Sheets.

Word processing documents, presentation software, spreadsheets.  As teachers, these are digital documents that we use more and more in our connected worlds.  Word processing documents are the easiest to understand and probably make the most sense.  We are familiar with writing stories and letters. Microsoft Word, Google Docs and Apple Pages are all examples of word processing documents. 

Presentation software has been getting more and more use in the classroom, especially with the common tool of a computer and projector to display work and ideas in the classroom.  With distance learning taking over, teachers have been forced to leverage the power of presentation software such as Microsoft Powerpoint, Google Slides or Apple Keynote to present lessons.  Presentation software is definitely easier to adjust layouts and design.  It also far more visually appealing compared to word processing documents.


OK, so now that we have covered the two easier tools that teachers use, what about spreadsheets?  There seems to be the notion of either teachers totally understand spreadsheets or they have no idea how they work.  Of course, there is a ton of gray space in between all of this as well.  But why are spreadsheets such as mystery and so hard to use for teachers?  This question has made me reflect on some of my own first experiences with spreadsheets.

First, let’s look at the basic layout of a spreadsheet, then I’ll tell you how I got hooked.

Parts of a spreadsheet Helpful Tips

Common Spreadsheet Vocabulary

  • Rows: Horizontal lines of cells across the spreadsheet.  Rows are always labeled by number starting with 1 and can go up to 10,000+.
  • Columns: Vertical lines of cells down the spreadsheet.  Columns are always labeled by letter starting with A.  They carry on in the pattern of A, B, C… AA, AB, AC…
  • Cell: A box where you can type in information such as words, numbers, dates, etc.
  • Cell Name: A reference that lets you know what cell you are in.  Each cell has an address consisting of a letter/number combination.  For example, A1, B37, etc.
  • Worksheet Tabs:  These are like having different “pages” in a spreadsheet.  You can create different tabs for different types of data or information.

How I got hooked Helpful Tips

As a teacher, I remember one of my first uses of spreadsheets was to make a class roster.  I had a list of students and I wanted a way to make a checklist for a variety of items.  I had seen some examples of this being done in a table on a document.  It could have been made in a word processing document or a spreadsheet.  I wasn’t sure.  What I did like about the spreadsheet, which I found a bit of a challenge on a word processing document, was that the “table” was already there.  All the boxes and lines were already made.  I could easily drag the lines to resize the boxes to match what I wanted to make.  This made sense to me.  

I had no idea about the actual function of a spreadsheet or how people in other industries such as finance and marketing used spreadsheets. I mean, I knew that spreadsheets were a type of document that could be used to organize information and sort numbers and words.  That was about it.  I didn’t even really know how teachers used spreadsheets effectively.  All I knew is that I wanted to put some names in a list and have some columns where I could put in information about a student.  Over time, my checklist grew to adding in information such as birthdays, test scores and anecdotal notes.  This was fine, but I was definitely not making the best use of the power of spreadsheets.  In my defense, I just didn’t know what they could do.

Most common use of spreadsheets in classrooms

Spreadsheet Uses in School

So, based on personal experience, I have noticed that spreadsheets in schools seem to be mainly used for some key things. Of course, there are many more ways to use spreadsheets. However, this is not an exhaustive list, but rather some of the basic ways a teacher might use spreadsheets.

1. Lists.  Organizing information in list form to keep track of tasks, items in an inventory, birthdays, emails, attendance, or other types of information that don’t necessarily have numbers.

2. Grades.  Tracking student test scores, both by number and by letter grade, averaging scores, looking at high scores and low scores over time.

3. Schedules.  Digital lesson planners, time tables across a grade level, division, or even school.  These could be daily time tables, weekly schedules, or yearly calendars.

4. Forms. Survey questions, quizzes, collecting personal information or opinions can be done with forms.  If you use Google Forms, you can view the form results in a spreadsheet.  The spreadsheet will automatically be set up and each question will be given its own column.  Each time someone fills in the form, a new row or response, will be entered on the spreadsheet.  

Why not just a word processing document?

A lot of the things listed above could be captured in a word processing document.  So why not just use that instead of a spreadsheet?  Well, first of all, spreadsheets can do some really cool things when it comes to numbers.  Spreadsheets are really effective at automating certain tasks.  I’ll break down some of these tasks in another article, but one specific way they are better is around the use of numbers.  Take test scores, for example.  If you were to create a table in a word processing document and type in test scores, you would have to manually calculate any type of average score or total score.  A spreadsheet can do this for you automatically, if set up correctly.  (This is very easy to do and I will demonstrate in another article.)  Another cool thing about spreadsheets is the ability to sort, hide and rearrange information very easily.  Processing information takes time.  Spreadsheets can speed up the analysis and processing time for you.

In my next article, I will share one of the very first things that got me hooked in using spreadsheets in the classroom: cell referencing.  If you want to sign up so you know when the next article gets published, you can do that here.  It’ll get dropped right into your inbox.

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