In an anthropology course at Austin College, professor Brian Watkins had students use as part of their daily reading practice. As a guide to what that actually meant, Brian required students complete three “actions” on every reading assignment. What we like about his guidance is that it goes beyond simply requiring three annotations and goes a long way toward encouraging students to engage with each other’s ideas around a text, demonstrating the multi-layeredness of collaborative annotation. Here’s the complete assignment from which the below definition of “action” is excerpted.

Whether you like to read online or on paper, you can still use this software to good effect. The basic requirement is that you take three actions per reading assignment. You may skip three days with no penalty. Consider saving these for the end of the semester or in case of illness.

Here’s a definition of what I mean by “action”:

Action – Any annotation is an action, with some caveats. An action is:

Many things: a question, a comment, an answer, some context you looked up and wanted to add – each of these is an annotation, and therefore an action in the basic sense.

Constructive – It’s made in good faith to build up and add value to the people reading the text. It can be a question, answer, or informative comment. Good questions cannot be answered in a few words and might help someone else with a similar question or another student looking to make a comment. Good answers are thoughtful. Good arguments are productive, allowing for the possibility of misunderstanding on all sides, creating spaces for further understanding.

Considerate – At no point will a student be the target of a dismissive or otherwise negative comment. Doing so will cost a student one of his or her “skip days.”

Substantive – It is more than a very short reply. “I agree,” or “Why?” will not count toward your three actions, though you can post any number of smaller annotations as you would like. They just won’t count for your “three actions.”