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Teaching with Perusall and Social Annotation – Highlights from a Conversation

Posted by on Wednesday, September 23, 2020 in Resource.

by Derek Bruff, Director

This summer, hundreds of participants in the Center for Teaching’s Online Course Design Institute had the chance to use a social annotation tool as part of their experience in the institute. My CFT colleagues and I asked participants to read a few articles about online teaching and annotate them collaboratively, first using a tool called Hypothesis and later using a tool called Perusall. Participants highlighted passages in the articles that caught their attention, then added comments to those passages sharing their questions, reflections, and perspectives. Often these comments sparked asynchronous discussion, with participants responding to each other’s comments with thoughts of their own.

The result for many participants was a lively engagement with the readings and with each other—and a great deal of interest in using social annotation tools in their own teaching this fall.

Given this interest, Vanderbilt adopted Perusall for campus use late in the summer. When classes started, I was curious to know how faculty were using Perusall to support student learning and build social presence in their online, face-to-face, and hybrid courses. I convened a Conversation on Teaching on September 15th, inviting faculty to share their experiences teaching with Perusall and to learn from other instructors experimenting with social annotation. We had a lively conversation, and I wanted to share a few highlights here on the blog, including some of the creative and effective ways faculty are teaching with social annotation.

Terry Maroney, professor of law, is teaching an online course this fall called “Actual Innocence” about wrongful convictions. She learned about Perusall during the institute this summer, and she’s using social annotation to help students prepare for their synchronous Zoom sessions. For example, she mentioned one assignment that asked students to compare and contrast a text documenting what turned out to be a false confession with a video recording of the alleged confession itself. Perusall supports collaborative annotation of both texts and videos, which made it a useful tool for this activity. Perusall also has a hashtag feature, which Maroney used to great effect: her students tagged their comments using a defined set of keywords, and Maroney used those hashtags to find patterns in student comments across the two documents. Those patterns then informed the synchronous discussion of the documents that Maroney led during her Zoom class that week.

Meanwhile, Katherine Clements, senior lecturer in chemistry, is using Perusall in her upper-level, seminar-style course on macromolecular chemistry. One of her course goals is for students to read and make sense of chemistry research literature, so she asks her students to do so collaboratively through social annotation. Her class isn’t large, but even 23 students can generate a lot of discussion about challenging journal articles. Clements uses two Persuall features to focus her engagement with student comments: students can flag comments as questions for the instructor, and students can “upvote” other students’ comments as particularly helpful or important. By focusing on flagged questions and comments with lots of upvotes, Clements makes good use of her time reading and responding to annotation.

Over at Peabody, Heather Lefkowitz, lecturer in human and organizational development, does have a big class, with close to 90 students enrolled in her course on talent management. She asks her students to annotate and discuss various kinds of documents, including journal articles, popular writing, videos, and more. Having 90 students annotate a document in a single, shared space can result in too much discussion, making it hard for students to have a voice. Lefkowitz uses Perusall’s groups feature to split her students into smaller groups, with each group annotating its own copy of a given document. This makes it easier for each student to say something interesting and to respond to their peers. Lefkowitz is experimenting with group size (4 students per group? or 6 students?), but she’s realized that having persistent small groups is an important way to make a large class feel small and to build social presence in an online course.

One popular question at last week’s conversation: How much time does it take to read and respond to student annotations? Several faulty using Perusall this fall noted how enthusiastically their students took to it, which was great for student engagement but meant a lot of student comments to scan. Some instructors take Katherine Clement’s approach, focusing on annotations that are tagged as questions for instructors or annotations that generate upvotes or replies. Other instructors compared Perusall to more traditional online discussion boards. “Reviewing annotation is so much easier than anything I’ve done on the discussion board,” one participant said. “It takes about a third of the time, and the students are much more engaged on Perusall.” Terry Maroney noted that her workload was similar in both settings, but that her students’ annotations tend to be more grounded and concrete, while their discussion threads are more synthetic and abstract.

We also discussed ways to help students engage more meaningfully with course materials and with each other in the social annotation space. Annotation is a new skill for many students, who, as novices in a discipline, sometimes struggle to make sense of readings and other documents. Providing students some guidance up front regarding the kinds of moves they might make in their annotations can be helpful. For instance, you might suggest students highlight an important point in a reading and comment on why the point was important. Or they might annotate an argument they feel is weak, either with a critique or a suggestion for strengthening it. Or they might draw a connection between the reading at hand and past readings in the course. Or they might highlight a provocative quotation and invite their peers to respond to it. These moves go beyond the “this is interesting” and “I don’t understand this” and “I agree” annotations that some students leave.

It’s natural to use Perusall with course readings and such, but we also floated some other ways to use social annotation with students.

  • I mentioned that I often have students in my writing seminar read and respond to sample work from past students as a way to help them think about their own writing. I could post a de-identified paper from a former student in Perusall, and have students do this work collaboratively there.
  • Abby Parish, associate professor of nursing, said she was thinking of inviting students to annotate her lecture transcripts. The lectures for her online courses are voice-over-PowerPoint with transcripts, so these would be easy to post in Perusall, providing students a venue for asking questions—and answering each other’s questions.
  • Bohyeong Kim, assistant professor of communication studies, shared that she invited her students to annotate her own syllabus, asking questions about course goals and activities and suggesting topics and readings for later in the semester. Doing so gave her students a chance to practice annotating before later assignments, but also helped Kim better understand her students and their interests in the course.

For more on having students annotate their course syllabus, see this blog post from Remi Kalir, assistant professor of learning design and technology at the University of Colorado-Denver. That blog post is one of several resources I have collected on social annotations, a collection you can find on my Diigo account.

When I mentioned on Twitter that last week’s conversation on social annotation went well, I got more than a few replies! Here are a few thoughts on teaching with social annotation from my Twitter network:

  • From Dan Morrison, former Center for Teaching grad fellow and now an assistant professor of sociology at Abilene Christian University: “I love it. It makes my teacher heart grow 3 sizes. Students who take advantage really seem to learn a lot. I’m in the text, too, commenting and encouraging. When most everyone reads, class time is so different. Richer, deeper, more nuanced.”
  • From Dani Picard, senior lecturer in medicine, health, and society here at Vanderbilt: “Students raved last semester about @Perusall but this semester I’m getting more resistance. Students complaining abt the additional time to read/annotate. BUT their level of understanding is better than w/o annotations.”
  • From Melissa Mallon, director of teaching and learning at the Vanderbilt libraries: “Andy [Wesolek] & I are using @hypothes_is in the Buchanan Fellowship we’re teaching this semester – we’re having students find & annotate articles related to privacy & surveillance and it’s resulted in deeper/more complex synchronous discussions. Yay!”
  • From Susan Hrach, professor of English at Columbus State University: “It feels like a game-changer. My students are spending a _looong_ time interacting with the assigned reading and with each other, which is huge when the text is the primary object of your discipline.”
  • From Ania Kowalik, assistant director at the Rice University Center for Teaching Excellence: “Same here! They keep adding notes to the text after we discussed it in class and even later, as they work on their writing assignments. I’ve never seen this level of interaction with a text. Definitely a game changer for me!”

Vanderbilt instructors interested in getting started with Perusall are encouraged to visit this set-up guide, put together by the Center for Teaching’s Brightspace support team. Persuall integrates well with Brightspace, and the support team is available to answer both technical and pedagogical questions about teaching with Perusall. Just email for help.


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