Five Ways to Start Using Social Annotation in Your Classroom

Are you wondering how to get starting using social annotation in teaching and learning? Dr. Jeremy Dean, who leads the education practice at Hypothesis, brought together this short list of the easiest ways to start making reading active, visible and social. Start meeting your students “on the text” with these basic practices that can work in classes that are on campus, online, or hybrid.

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1. It’s not about annotation, it’s about community

Yes, we want our students to do the reading. We want them to understand it. We want them to think critically about it. And annotation is a great way to help cultivate those skills and practices. But beyond just being an annotation tool, Hypothesis is also just a great way for students to connect online in a substantive way, to ask each other questions, to share ideas, and to collaborate around their learning.

Video conferencing can literally bring us face to face, which is helpful. But it doesn’t necessarily make it easier to collaborate on specific projects — especially when it may be harder than ever to all be collaborating at the same time. We’re always moving over to something like Google Docs to really get work done, right? Like Google Docs, but for any digital text, collaborative annotation with Hypothesis puts us all on the same page. The reading is really the center of so much teaching and learning and now we can meet there for class — and continue our conversations in the margins if and when we do meet together.

2. Just make your readings annotation-enabled

Instead of simply adding texts to your online courses, add them through the Hypothesis LMS app so that students can take personal notes and have conversations on top of those readings.

Don’t worry about coming up with an annotation activity or assignment. Don’t worry about assessment. Just turn annotation on for your students, give them some basic guidance on how to use the Hypothesis tool, and see how they make use of the digital margins.

By far the most popular praise we get from our student users is that Hypothesis helped them learn from their peers. Of course such peer-to-peer learning, whether formal or informal, is a large part of what face-to-face college experience is all about. Hypothesis creates space for students to connect with each other remotely within the readings for your course, even when they can’t be together in the same space or at the same time.

3. Just annotate yourself

Don’t worry about making students do a new activity or learn a new tool, just annotate the texts yourself for their benefit. This is a very real way to be present in their learning when you can’t physically be in the same place.

I recently noticed a course using Hypothesis that was just a single user creating hundreds of annotations. When I saw the course was in classics, I immediately recognized a valuable use case. Many teachers spend in-class time leading students deliberately through readings. Now this needs to be done online and there’s no better place to do it than in the margins of the text itself.

Some of the most valuable experiences we can pass on as teachers are our own reading practices. Hypothesis enables instructors to guide students through a text remotely, adding glosses and signposts to a difficult reading to help students work their way through.

4. Seminar-style discussion online

As an English teacher, the most important part of my teaching was always the class discussion: a group of students sitting in a circle with their books and pens out, focused on discussing specific passages. This is where I ensured students were comprehending the material. And it’s where we all began the critical work of developing our analyses of text.

From my experience, collaborative annotation is about as close to a seminar-style experience as one can have with a class online. Everyone has the book open, our conversation is grounded in the text and in each other’s comments about it. It’s not the same thing as being face to face in a room together, but it’s a much closer match than a discussion forum or conventional social media where there’s just too much distance between the conversation and the text itself and, quite often, between the comments and commenters themselves. Even if you are meeting “face to face” through video conferencing, annotating the reading together ahead of those synchronous meetings will help make better use of that precious time.

5. Have students annotate your lecture

Of course, not every college course is a seminar. Most are lecture-based with instructors delivering content to a large group of students in a room together. Lecture capture and video conferencing technologies have great features that enable students to attend lectures virtually and engage with each other and instructors, but the underlying content — the basic concepts of a lesson, of a course, and of a discipline — can remain ethereal. Here too, annotation can help.

Post your lecture notes and slide deck as a PDF online and ask students to annotate them with questions. Some video platforms can even generate automatic transcripts of your lectures that you can also post. Like in-class clickers, the notes students make will help you better understand where students are confused and enable you to clarify course concepts. You might even get some feedback on how to improve your own teaching materials!

Recipes for Annotation

We are also establishing a hub for teaching materials related to collaborative, digital annotation where we will share resources to help instructors get started with practices other teachers are already using. We would be grateful if veterans of Hypothesis, social reading, and online learning would share their lesson plans and activities with us so we can share with others and credit your work. Annotate this post with your ideas or email your contributions to