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Social Annotation: Student and Faculty Relationships Featuring Guest Speakers


A student reads the prompt for the week’s class discussion. The initial post is due tomorrow, but there are already eight responses. A quick glance through them shows that their classmates have, so far, all summed up the main points of the reading. No one has mentioned the counterargument the author brought up. The student thinks it was an interesting point, but no one else has mentioned it. What if I misunderstood? What if it isn’t addressing the prompt? The student questions their judgment and opts for a safe response mirroring what others have already said.

Michelle Bennett and Alexis Kenyon headshots
Michelle Bennett and Alexis Kenyon

The value of interactivity in a course often comes from variety. Learning thrives when students and instructors are approaching content and asking questions about it from their unique perspectives. The leaders of the Bachelor of Applied Science (BAS) and the Bachelor of Arts in Interdisciplinary Professional Studies (IPS) found that students were getting weary of traditional discussion boards that lacked variety. First responses often provided more unique perspectives, whereas subsequent responses began to duplicate ideas. In an effort to encourage unique, authentic comments on areas of most interest and to provide a fresh tool for peer-to-peer and instructor-to-student connection, leadership decided to take an alternative approach to discussion boards and incorporate interactive tools like Perusall for social annotation.

Social annotation

Inserting electronic comments on a document is not new. In the past, students left behind notes or highlights in a used textbook. In today’s digital environment, we have the opportunity to make those annotations online in a shared file, like a PDF, photo, chart, or even video. The options are endless and all parties are engaged more with the content by sharing ideas and responding to peers. The result is a conversation taking place within the context of the learning materials.

Perusall is a tool that can help facilitate these very conversations. According to Perusall, the tool “turns coursework into a social experience” and helps “students think critically and develop a deeper understanding of the material.”  Perusall is helping BAS/IPS students create a community while learning.

Using Perusall to engage learners

Michelle Bennett, clinical associate professor in the BAS/IPS programs, shared her experience using Perusall in BAS/IPS 375 in which students are learning how to be better leaders and followers by exploring emotional intelligence and perspective-taking. Bennett could see the impact right away. In the first week, with little direction on the prompt, students were achieving a higher level of learning. “I’ve never had discussion posts that start off in week one like that,” she said. “The beauty in this,” Bennett added, “is they’re really getting down to specifics,” which wasn’t happening in traditional discussion boards that had prompts trying to capture a learning topic at a macro level. Bennett notes that there have been very few negative comments about the annotation activities from students; in fact, the students are doing “even more than they were required to do.”

Elsewhere in the BAS/IPS programs, BAS/IPS Associate Director Alexis Kenyon has made use of Perusall as a way to engage students with the course syllabus. Where there used to be a quiz covering some specific facts from the syllabus, students now use Perusall to ask questions or make comments about what they find in the syllabus. “Students get clarification about what they will be doing earlier in the semester,” Kenyon shares. She notes that with fewer questions relating to the syllabus, “students are getting more excited about the course content.” In addition, the program was able to use annotations to review the syllabus thematically for the areas most important to their students. These areas are now located toward the top of the syllabus for quick access.

BAS/IPS recommendations

When asked about her experience, Bennett made it clear that setting up Perusall for the first time can be complicated — it requires a precise series of steps to give students a seamless experience from working in Canvas. “But once everything is set up the first time,” she said, “subsequent times, teaching it is really smooth.”

Because Perusall involves multiple people adding notes to the same document, it can get overcrowded. The eCampus team recommends using Perusall for whole-class annotation when the group is small; larger classes should be split into smaller groups as needed. The BAS/IPS programs have had success with small groups of around eight students, which allows groups to remain active even if there are withdrawals once a course begins.

While Perusall allows for grades to automatically update in Canvas using the Learning Tools Interoperability, known as LTI, the BAS/IPS programs have had success with manual grading in the Canvas Gradebook. According to the Perusall website, “Perusall uses a machine learning algorithm that uses linguistic features of the text to create a predictive model for the score a human instructor would give.” To determine whether answers meet expectations or not, Perusall has a series of settings that can be adjusted by the instructor. These settings include annotation content, opening the assignment, reading to the end of the document, time spent actively engaged with the assignment, getting responses to annotations, upvoting and responding to quiz questions. Instructors in the BAS/IPS programs have found they prefer their own criteria, or a rubric, to score annotation assignments.

Perusall can be set up to annotate PDFs, audio, video and more. If including a number of learning materials for annotation in a single module, experience shows that shorter content, like documents with fewer than 10 pages, is best. The BAS/IPS programs incorporate articles that are fewer than four pages, and students have shared positive feedback. To focus students on particular portions of longer materials, instructors can pre-annotate or add prompts to certain areas to draw students’ attention if needed.


The BAS/IPS programs have seen a lot of success in implementing Perusall. Like all learning technology tools, determining if it is best for your course depends on the learning goals you have identified. In touring her implementation of Perusall, Bennett marveled at how students were engaging with expert content and “creating a whole conversation around experts and what they write in the articles.” She appreciates the evidence she now has that students are not just responding to a prompt, but really reading the materials selected for them because, she admits, “a lot of times you don’t know if they have.”


If you’d like to learn more about how to design your online course to make use of social annotation, request a consultation with an eCampus staff member. View the following additional resources to get started using social annotation in your online course.

Article credit

Thanks to Michelle Bennett and Alexis Kenyon for embracing new ways to engage students in the online classroom and for sharing their experiences with Gina Persichini and Christy Aceves, eCampus instructional design consultants who work with faculty to design effective online learning experiences.