Four Ways to Annotate in Math Courses 

By Ashley Hood | 19 June, 2023

While humanities faculty-led early adoption of social annotation to engage students in course readings, there is growing Hypothesis usage among math faculty who are helping their students better understand concepts and apply what they learn within upper and lower-level math courses.

Math faculty who embrace social annotation gain valuable insights into student ‘trouble spots’ by reading the comments students leave in the margins and can intervene well before a formal assessment, or before the student becomes disengaged. As we wrote in a previous blog, social annotation is an excellent way to make the reading, thinking, and writing processes of academic work more tangible and accessible for both students and instructors. For math instructors who want to support students who have difficulty understanding or seeing the connections between different mathematical concepts or those students whose self-doubt gets in the way of their progress, social annotation can be a valuable tool.

Here are four examples of how to use social annotation in a mathematics course:

1. Ask questions:

In courses using Hypothesis, students are able to highlight text and respond to it as they read. These responses can be questions, either posted publicly for class discussion or kept privately for the students to revisit later. Some instructors encourage students to use the tagging feature to label their questions [insert tag image], making it easy for anyone to find and respond, or to help instructors find where students are stuck.

By asking questions in the margins of the readings, students can freely express their confusion in a low-pressure environment and connect with others on shared questions. Students are also pinpointing the place where they are ‘lost’, something that can be very helpful when it comes to getting them back on track. Both students and faculty can support these students by offering explanations, reminders, and short instructional videos in response to their questions. We also see answers emerge as faculty and students work problems together in the margins using the LaTex equation editor.

2. Explain it another way:

One effective Hypothesis assignment has students restate an abstract concept using examples or by ‘translating’ it to everyday language. The learning practice of concrete examples lends itself to a Hypothesis assignment well. Students and faculty can tease out one anothers’ examples to make them as accurate as possible, learning from each other and refining or reinforcing their own understanding as they read. One dynamic aspect of social annotation with Hypothesis is that these examples can be images and videos further bringing the textbook to life for all.

3. Find the connection:

The learning strategy of elaboration asks students to “go beyond simple recall of information and start making connections within the content”. Social annotation with Hypothesis empowers students to label those connections at the moment as they read, making the connections visible to their peers. An example of this would be a student reading about calculating derivatives in a calculus course and then annotating the connection to solving the slope of a curve.  They might also read text that unlocks a problem set or a dense lecture for them and then annotate to share with their classmates.

Assignment instructions that guide students to seek out these connections help students dive deeper into the content, drawing lines between lecture, the text, problem sets, videos, prior learning, class discussion and more.

4. Move out of isolation

The 2015 study Developmental Mathematics Success: Impact of Students’ Knowledge and Attitudes found that “student self-perception, confidence, attitudes and beliefs, and anxiety are all linked to persistence and motivation to study mathematics”.  Anecdotally, we see some students limit their own success due to the belief that they are “bad at math” or that they are too far behind the rest of the class to catch up. Social annotation allows students to read and learn together, revealing and sharing their questions, frustrations and need for support. Instead of feeling overwhelmed and closing the book, these students are annotating directly on their learning block so that others can help them find a way through it, or at least commiserate until class time. By fostering a sense of belonging with social annotation, math faculty can keep more students engaged and connected.

While some students are comfortable being vulnerable in class, raising their hand to slow down discussion when they need support or have a question, others prefer to process information on their own and wait for the privacy of office hours to ask for support (or sometimes never seek help at all). In math, social annotation serves as a happy medium, letting students read and problem-solve together (literally), supporting one another until deep understanding is achieved. This kind of collective knowledge building is essential to true comprehension and “flexible understanding” in math and a great way to build community in a math classroom.

Hypothesis has a number of superstar math instructors using our social annotation tool in their courses. Check out some of the resources they shared as part of our Resources including Reading Assignment for Math Textbook by Ming-Lun Ho from Chabot College and Math Test Grading Using Hypothesis by Sherry Schulz of Montclair State University

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