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Learning Strategies

Fostering Student Engagement and Interaction Through Collaborative Annotation and Note-Taking

March 8, 2021
Emily Donahoe

Switching to hybrid, online, or asynchronous modalities can present a number of challenges for instructors. When students and teachers have fewer face-to-face interactions in a shared physical space, it can be difficult to facilitate engagement with course material and foster student interaction and collaboration.

One partial solution to this problem is to make collaborative digital annotation or note-taking projects part of the course requirements. At the most basic level, these activities ask students to work together to create or comment on a shared course text. This can be done in pairs, with small groups, or with the entire class. And the collaborations might take a number of forms:

  • Students could collectively annotate a course reading with questions, clarifications, or comments. The shared reading might be a primary or secondary work, the course textbook, or any challenging text that students need to understand for the class.
  • Students could engage in a peer review of others’ work, providing suggestions or asking questions about the shared document. 
  • Students could work together on lecture notes, taking notes live in class or compiling a shared study document at the end of a course unit. 

These kinds of collaborative activities are incredibly flexible. You can use them to help students close read an intricate poem or solve a complicated equation. They can be done in or outside of class, synchronously or asynchronously. And they can be loose and informal or highly structured, with templates and individual student responsibilities. Individual students might, for example, be responsible for making connections to previous readings, for keeping track of the common themes emerging in the notes, or simply for organizing the material in the shared document.

And these collaborative activities have several advantages:

  • They deepen engagement with course material, making students active rather than passive listeners, readers, and note-takers. This can also help students take greater ownership over the course materials and over their own learning.
  • They encourage students to interact with one another at times when student interaction can be difficult to facilitate (like during a pandemic!).
  • They help students learn from one another, exposing them to the wide range of perspectives, approaches, and strategies that their classmates bring to the table.
  • If students enter the course with differing levels of preparation, they can help level the playing field, leading to more equitable and inclusive learning environments (see Brielle Harbin’s work below).
  • They allow instructors to easily track student comprehension, often in real-time. 

If you’re eager to get started on collaborative annotation or note-taking, check out the resources below to read more about these activities and the digital tools that can help facilitate them. And be sure to check out last week’s Kaneb Center workshop on using Perusall for Collaborative Reading.