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Teaching and Learning Technologies

Using Social Annotation to Enhance Student Preparation

February 25, 2022
ND Learning

By Kevin Barry and Brian Burchett

Instructors often report that their students are not reading assigned material prior to coming to class, and this limits the possibility and impact of what happens in the classroom.  Students who prepare for class are more likely to ask questions in class, they ask more meaningful questions, and are better prepared for engaging in activities that dive deeper into the concepts that they explored prior to class. A social annotation tool, such as Perusall (, provides students with a social media like opportunity to engage with each other and instructors while completing the preparation tasks. It also provides instructors with reports on how well students have engaged with the assigned reading material and their classmates in preparation for in-class learning activities. To do this, Perusall uses grading algorithms to assess student engagement by referencing several factors (adjustable by instructors), including how much time they spend interacting with the reading material, the quality of the questions and comments they provide in their annotations, and the extent to which they help answer their fellow students’ questions.

Perusall integrates with the Canvas learning management system so that no additional login or student management is required to implement it in a class. Once they launch Perusall from within their Canvas course, Instructors add material to the Perusall Library for their course(s), and they create assignments for specific parts of that material with due dates. When students launch Perusall from the course their login is automatic and they are able to read or watch the assigned materials, respond to instructor questions,ask questions, make comments, and upvote their peers’ questions and comments. Here is a brief YouTube clip from Harvard professor Gary King, one of the co-founders of Perusall, which demonstrates how students interact with assigned material, and with each other. Students can be placed into appropriately sized assignment groups, in order to ensure that conversations are robust, but not overly crowded.

Perusall supports social annotation of traditional texts, like PDF documents and e-texts, but assignments can also be based on web pages, images, and publicly accessible YouTube videos and mp3 podcast episodes. This makes Perusall an option for use across many different academic disciplines, and not only those types of classes that might have been traditionally known to follow a seminar style of discourse.

Perusall is already integrated with our Canvas platform, and all that is necessary is to enable the application. It is hidden by default, and all an instructor needs to do is go to the Settings for that particular course, choose the Navigation tab, and drag Perusall from the lower list of hidden items into the upper list of items that are displayed to students in the left-hand navigation menu and then go to the bottom of the page to save their changes. For detailed instructions see Adding Perusall to a Canvas Course. If you need any assistance getting started with Perusall you may contact Brian Burchett, or any member of the Teaching & Learning Technologies group and we will be happy to assist you. Perusall’s online support can be accessed here.

Additional Resources

  1. Use of a Social Annotation Platform for Pre-Class Reading Assignments in a Flipped Introductory Physics Class
  2. Perusall’s FAQs for Instructors
  3. Introduction to Perusall by co-founder & Harvard Professor Gary King (YouTube)