4 Sure-Fire Social Annotation Assignments for Student Success

Dartboard with darts sticking out from the bullseye

Many educators have long used social annotation in their teaching. Others are brand new to it. Still others might be reading this and thinking “what is social annotation, and how would it add value for my students?”

For the uninitiated, social annotation is a pedagogical practice where students add notes in the margins of digital texts, creating a conversation, as a class, about what they’re reading. A note can be a question, a thought, a reply to a peer’s annotation, a hyperlink to a related document, even a meme or GIF. By making reading active, visible and social, annotation creates community in the classroom and enables students to share the learning.

But whether you’re brand new to this practice or have been using it for a while, one important thing to keep in mind is that social annotation is not a means to an end. Think of it instead as a means to a beginning. In a few ways. For one, students can use the notes they make in the margins to study for tests and as a way to organize their thoughts, which can then serve as a springboard for making arguments in term papers. For two, annotating assigned texts means that students are actively, not passively, reading what’s in front of them.

How can student annotations be useful means toward other beginnings? Here are four key ways:

Annotations as the guide to class discussion

Many instructors tell us that they review student annotations ahead of class to help them prepare for a lecture and/or discussion.

Try assigning students this similar task: In your and your classmate’s annotations, identify one annotation that was the most surprising, one that was the most interesting, and one that was the most troubling. Or, during class discussion, identify all of the questions that were raised in the annotations on a specific text and determine which three questions are the most important and must be expanded on further in class.

Annotations as pre-writing

Annotations can be leveraged for more summative assignments, like essays. Some instructors have students cite classmates’ annotations in their essays and give students extra credit when their annotations are cited

This can be very explicit in terms of asking students to literally copy and paste one of their annotations into a document as pre-writing. Students could be asked to expand on a particular annotation or on their set of annotations or on a classmate’s annotation(s) in a short reflective writing assignment. Here are some example prompts:

  • Choose one of your annotations and expand on the ideas/theme
  • Find a classmate’s annotation that changed your thinking and explain exactly how it changed your thinking

Reflecting on course objectives or learning outcomes

Oftentimes course readings and annotation are viewed by students as individual assignments and are rarely viewed as a compilation of learnings and thought-shifting throughout a course. For many learning outcomes, annotation can be a key space in which to practice and begin to master critical skills.

Have students return to the course goals or learning outcomes and identify particular annotations that demonstrate their learning. They could use tags to label annotations that demonstrate specific learning outcomes.

Another approach is to ask students to annotate the syllabus or course outline to reflect on their progress in terms of each course outcome.

Don’t forget to reply

We definitely recommend including “replies” as part of an annotation assignment. Hypothesis was specifically designed for conversation, enabling users to branch out replies from annotations as well as from classmates’ replies.

You could set a deadline for students’ initial annotations, and then have them return to the reading by the next deadline to further engage in conversation on top of the text.

This could also be done at the beginning of a class session so students re-familiarize themselves with the text and existing commentary. Give students five-10 minutes at the beginning of class (whether it’s taking place virtually or in person) and have them review their own as well as their peers’ annotations, further engaging them in conversation as they reply to any unanswered questions and/or isolate the annotations that stand out the most to them.

If you have annotation strategies that have worked for you and your students, we’d love to hear about them. Please reach out and share your success stories about social annotation. With your permission, of course, we’d happily add them to our repository of annotation ideas. In 2023, look for the announcement of our new Hypothesis repository of annotation assignments created by faculty that we share with our subscribers to make it easy to get started annotating.