Reproducible Quantitative Methods

Instructor Guide, Lesson 2

Best practices for spreadsheets/ Learning to use data produced by others

yeah bar

Topics and Resources

  1. Overview of skills for collaborative science practice

    Start by giving your students an overview of tools they can use to work on collaborative documents together. Here are some things to get you started:

      • On research workflows and technology: Changing the Research Workflow with Innovations in Scholarly Communication

      • Nature article on collaborative writing tools

    Possibilities include: Authorea, Overleaf, GoogleDocs, GitHub, Fiduswriter, sharelatex and any others you might suggest. Before the class meeting, familiarize yourself with these platforms.

    In advance of your class meeting, set up a blog on your preferred blogging platform (Wordpress has an easy to set up for group bloggings). This is where you and your students will document and share course processes and work.

  2. Using other people’s data

    Introduction to the project data set

    You should have a data set selected by this class meeting, whether identified by you or suggested by students. Discuss with the students about what the data documents. Ask your students:

      • Where and when was it collected?

      • What was measured?

      • Were there any complementary data sets collected that might provide context (for example, weather data collected by a weather station near to where the experiment was performed)?


    A helpful hint from those that came before

    Choose a data set that the students can connect to and ask meaningful questions about. Long time-series are awesome because they invite questions of how processes are changing over time.

  3. Spreadsheet best practices

    For this exercise, the class will work through the Data Carpentry lesson on spreadsheets for ecology. You will want to review this in full, in advance, so you’re comfortable with the process. A link to a deliciously messy data set is here.


  1. Brainstorm questions for project data set
  2. Work with the students to figure out what you'd like to ask of your project data set. What questions can be answered with the data set directly? What questions can be answered with additional contextual data?


    A helpful hint from those
    that came before

    Let the students be creative here. At the end of the brainstorming session, nudge the students towards questions that will require skills or statistical tests commonly used in your field to answer.

  3. Selecting collaborative writing tools
  4. Search the web as a class for collaborative writing tools and platforms. Some places to start: Overleaf, Authorea, Google Docs...even a Word file in a shared Dropbox… really, anything that would allow multiple people to have edit access to a document.

    Have students list selection criteria that are important to them, and evaluate each option according to those criteria. Suggestions for criteria include:

      • User friendliness of interface

      • Integration with referencing software

      • Familiarity to students

      • Apparent learning curve

      • Costs

    Set up a shared document in whichever platform you decide to use


    A helpful hint from those
    that came before

    Get the students to lead. You can have one of the students lead the set-up process to give students a sense of ownership of the work early in the semester.

  5. Write a test blog post
  6. Give each student write access to the class blog (which you set up before class) and encourage each of them to write a test blog post, and then delete the post.

    Encourage students to write in the blog frequently- both to document progress on the group project, and also to reflect on discussions. You may wish to assign specific posts to specific students. Good posts following this week’s lessons would be posts on: the selection of the collaborative writing tool or the outcomes of the brainstorming session to decide on questions to ask of the data



No discussion this week-- you’ll need the time for project set-up and planning.

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