Indiana University transforms the first year experience with Hypothesis

Justin Hodgson

Associate Professor of English, Indiana University Bloomington

Boosting student engagement in an online first-year writing seminar

With nearly 43,000 students, Indiana University Bloomington is one of the nation’s largest universities. The university’s diverse population includes students from all 50 states as well as a relatively high percentage of international students.

In the Fall 2020 semester, Indiana University Bloomington turned to Hypothesis to engage students in online sections of its first-year composition writing seminar. Three years after its implementation began, the university has seen a number of benefits for students and instructors — as well as the usage of Hypothesis expanding into upper-level courses.

By the numbers

Data from Indiana University Bloomington’s IRB-approved study regarding Hypothesis usage over the Fall 2021, Spring 2022, and Fall 2022 semesters

Total courses implementing Hypothesis
Total students using Hypothesis
Total student annotations
Cumulative word count of student annotations


To bring more sections of its first-year composition course online, Indiana University turned to a team led by Justin Hodgson, Associate Professor of English. When expanding the initiative from 12 sections to 65, Hodgson and his team set out to redesign the course with the goal of improving outcomes as well as the experience of teaching and learning.

Like many institutions, the university had seen declines in student engagement with course content as the university shifted courses online, and faculty embraced OER as a way to lower costs for students. “Our biggest challenge was two-fold: how do we get students to read the texts that faculty assign, and how do we encourage students to engage with that content more deeply?” says Hodgson.

But it wasn’t just students’ engagement with content that Hodgson and his colleagues sought to improve. It was also the personal connections between students, which he’d observed were less frequent in online environments. “We wanted to create a stronger sense of community,” Hodgson says.

Indiana University Bloomington’s objectives

• Increase the number of students doing the reading
• Improve reading comprehension
• Promote deeper engagement with content — asking questions, identifying unclear concepts
• Foster more interactions between students


Why Hypothesis

“Hypothesis promised to help us achieve both of our main objectives,” Hodgson says, referring to increasing student engagement with course content and building a sense of community. He also prized Hypothesis’s ability to create meaningful feedback loops between students and faculty — and between students and their peers.

Another priority: ease of use. “We had to reach a very broad base of instructors,” Hodgson says of the initiative. “For many of them, it was their first time teaching online. For some, it was their first time teaching, period.” Fortunately, Hypothesis’s integration with Canvas, the university’s LMS, made it easier for Hodgson and his colleagues to get started.


While the full results of the IRB-approved research study focused on the Fall 2021, Spring 2022, and Fall 2022 semesters are still being calculated, Hodgson is quick to cite the impact that the university has made with Hypothesis over the three-year implementation.

Students loved Hypothesis

Hodgson describes students’ response to Hypothesis as “overwhelmingly positive.” However, he primarily measures its success by the progress students are making toward his team’s objectives for the course, as evidenced by whether students complete their annotations, and if those annotations show engagement with the text. “Across the board, students were hitting the goals,” says Hodgson, pointing to cases where students left more than 200 total annotations on a single reading — well above the requirement — to show how students embraced Hypothesis.

Benefits across the board for faculty

As a faculty member himself, Hodgson was pleased that Hypothesis’s impact wasn’t limited to the student experience. It also made teaching more rewarding on a number of levels, including:

Better student preparation

“You could see that students had meaningfully engaged with the material before class. You don’t have to spend 8 minutes asking, ‘Can anyone tell me what the reading was about?’”

Increased comprehension

“Hypothesis brought back some of the positive behaviors that reinforce learning, retention, and engagement with text.”

Richer discussions

“We could dive right into the critical discussions that were sparked in students’ annotations. In that sense, we didn’t just address a pain point, we gained a new pedagogical opportunity.”

Faculty usage of Hypothesis at the university has expanded significantly, with many faculty opting to use Hypothesis in upper-level courses. “It’s now a staple of our program,” says Hodgson.

A testament to the university’s success with Hypothesis: The implementation, which began with 50 sections of firstyear composition in Fall 2020, grew to include more than ninety 100- and 200-level courses by Fall 2021.

“Hypothesis is one of the single most impactful tools I’ve ever brought into a classroom. It’s such a low lift, and the yield is so high in terms of what I’m getting back as the instructor.”

— Justin Hodgson, associate professor of English, Indiana University Bloomington


A powerful partnership

Hodgson attributes much of Indiana University Bloomington’s success in engaging first-year students to the partnership between his department and Hypothesis. From strategy-setting to troubleshooting, the Hypothesis Success team — composed of seasoned educators — was there to make sure that his experience wasn’t just an effective one but a smooth one.

“I don’t think you can ask for much more from a partner than to have that commitment to doing what we set out to do, and then demonstrating that it’s having the impact we want it to have,” says Hodgson.

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