Replace Your Discussion Boards with Hypothesis Social Annotation

By Christie DeCarolis | 22 May, 2024


There are a wealth of recommendations on how to improve online discussion boards. This Faculty Focus article concisely recreates a key complaint that both faculty and students share about discussion boards: the repetitive “Great post, <NAME>!  I so agree that “<EXCERPT>”.  Your observations are so <INTERESTING/RELEVANT/PROFOUND>.  You’ve really addressed the topic nicely.” 

But what if we’re approaching the problem from the wrong angle? There’s a foundational issue here no matter how you reframe your discussion questions: discussion boards are a discrete place within your learning management system’s course site. The processes of thinking, writing, and discussing occur separately from the course content. 

What if we change where we are having our conversations instead? Hypothesis social annotation allows students and instructors to anchor their questions, thoughts, and resources to the text as they read, creating a more authentic space for meaningful discussion.

What exactly makes social annotation with Hypothesis better than a traditional discussion board?

When participating in social annotation, students engage with the text as they read the text, encouraging metacognition and more authentic responses. Students often approach discussion boards as formal, distinct assignments. Socially annotating as part of the reading process shares greater characteristics of a real-time discussion, including the vulnerability, stumbling, and the process of “thinking out loud” often not found in traditional discussion boards. “‘Annotating in public is brave…‘because reading a piece and responding to it is the first draft of thinking. That thinking can be flawed, full of mistakes or misunderstandings, and examples of confusion. Often, we are schooled to only make public our best thinking, the ‘final draft.’ Annotation is first draft thinking’” (Kalir 64). Using social annotation instead of discussion boards provides students a space to practice applying and iterating on their ideas as they surface.

Social annotation encourages students to not only react to the text but also contribute to the overall knowledge base of the course by bringing their own ideas and explanations to the text itself. “Annotation enables response. It allows for student conversation to coalesce around difficult concepts, complex textual moments, or ideologically entrenched issues. As a result, there is a profound opportunity for students to control the location of the site of learning. Through annotation, a layer of contention is added to the learning space. Dissenting perspectives may have a tangible space to exist in the original context wherein the idea being troubled resides” (Brown and Croft 5). This can help them move beyond passive reading of the text to see themselves as scholars who can challenge or contribute to the field.

Students’ authentic contributions can provide more information for you as an instructor to make informed teaching decisions. Instead of relying on responses to instructor-directed questions, you can see how students genuinely respond to the ideas in the text. The discussion can be driven by either the student, the instructor, or both. Asking students to annotate course materials before class meetings provides instructors with information about what topics might need more attention in class or what conversational threads may need closer examination.

Using Hypothesis social annotation to replace traditional discussion boards can help students better meet your course learning goals. It provides space for authentic conversation, encourages scholarly reflection and discussion, and draws instructor attention to student understanding of course concepts. 

Not sure how to get started? Choose your LMS and follow our Getting Started Guide to set up your first annotation assignment.


Brown, Monica, and Benjamin Croft. “Social Annotation and an Inclusive Praxis for Open Pedagogy in the College Classroom.” Journal of Interactive Media in Education, vol. 2020, no. 1, 2020,

Kalir, Jeremiah (Remi). “Annotation Is First Draft Thinking: Educators’ Marginal Notes as Brave Writing.” English Journal, High school edition, vol. 110, no. 2, 2020, pp. 62–68,

Page, Amanda, and Miriam Abbott. “A Discussion About Online Discussion.” Faculty Focus, February 3, 2020, Accessed 21 May 2024.

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