Learner Engagement: Digital Annotation


Social Annotation (also called classroom annotation) is active and collaborative marking up of resources. Participants share thoughts, reactions, questions, and associations through highlighting content and commenting in the margins. Participants’ interactions anchor a conversation within the resource. This starts a dialogue and opportunity to observe other’s opinions and perspectives. Participants can also engage in private note-taking. A robust selection of resources to annotate exist:  texts, videos, websites, podcasts, epubs, diagrams, images, etc. 




Annotation Tools

Perusall (available in Brightspace) 

Robust multimedia platform with grading, filtering, and analytics features.


Annoto (available in Brightspace) 

Enables timestamped annotations and analytics for NYU Stream videos.

Video comments/collaborative learning must be toggled on in the Annoto dashboard.


Google Docs

Google Folder(s) can be set up to serve peer review via Docs and PDFs.


Google Jamboard (will no longer be available 12/31/24)

A collaborative whiteboard is useful for live group activities. 

Annotate images, diagrams, and group brainstorming.


Zoom Whiteboards (available in Zoom) 

Collaborative whiteboards with template options useful for live group activities.

Annotate images, diagrams, and group brainstorming.

Selecting Resources to Annotate

When choosing a resource, consider your goal and purpose for participants being asked to annotate (e.g., to build community, identify processes, ask questions, remember specific terms in context, find ways for participants to personally relate, etc.) Note: There is no perfect resource example. Anything can be a great resource. Next, use the activity ideas below to guide a student in annotating a resource.

Facilitating Annotation Activities

  • Sign-posts/seeding is when instructors pre-annotate resources to intentionally guide participants’ thinking and interactions. This shows students what to expect, and encourages them to participate.
  • Icebreakers can ease tension, build community, and introduce tools that will be used in later assignments. Consider using annotation exercises as a way to “break-the-ice” on a new topic or concept.
  • 3-2-1 ask participants to ask 3 questions, comment on 2 areas of interest, and explain 1 area challenging their thinking. 
  • Jigsaw will split students into groups for different assigned resources, chapters, sections, etc. Students become the “experts” and teach other groups. 
  • S-I-T is when participants list one surprising, interesting, and troubling area. Consider asking participants to use the “#” symbol in their annotation to distinguish their S-I-T. Also, feel free to change or add to the acronym.
  • Debate a concept by splitting the class into groups to evaluate content with a pre-assigned “stance” (pro or con). Consider asking participants to use the “#” symbol in their annotation to distinguish their stance. 
  • Reflective activities include prompts asking participants to relate and share personal experiences based on the content. The prompt could be, “Can you relate anything to your life experiences, etc
  • Discussion anchored on a resource allows participants to have conversations (and take notes) inside the resource before, during, or after class. Consider using sign-posts/seeding to encourage this type of discussion.
  • Participants can share resources with peers. Consider letting participants know that the purpose of the activity is to encourage their perspective, find missing perspectives, find content they care about, share relevant news, etc. 
    • Note: Perusal has a “student upload folder” so that students can share their resources. 
  • Open-ended questions ask specific participants to pre-annotate a resource with questions for peers. Another option is to ask those students to moderate the discussion. 
  • Live group annotation can facilitate the use of collaborative tools to brainstorm, record, and organize thoughts as a team. For example, consider asking students to annotate a case study to solve a problem. 
  • Q&A if you wish to participate to ask questions for peers or instructors to answer. This can be particularly useful in STEM courses.
  • Heat maps can highlight where students have the most interactions. E.g. Heat maps provide insight into difficult or provocative areas of a resource. Note: Perusal has a “confusion record” to help identify these areas.

Tips & Suggestions

  • The number of participants may oversaturate a resource depending on its length. In some contexts this may be okay; however, creating small groups is an option to keep conversations (which occur in the margins) manageable for participants.
  • Introduce participants to annotation with a low-stakes task. Allow participants the opportunity to experience and test before scaffolding into graded annotation assignments. For example, consider an icebreaker where the instructor asks students to annotate the course syllabus or an entertaining article. The prompt could be, “Annotate something you look forward to, can you relate anything to your life experiences, etc”. Note: The instructor also benefits from seeing how the tool works and collects the participants' activity.
  • Providing a choice for different resource modalities for participants. E.g. list different resources covering the same content, such as one being an article and the other a video.
  • Try “warm calling”, which is when an instructor proactively scans annotations, selects certain insights, and asks (via email) the learner in advance to prepare to share during live class discussion. This prepares students to participate in class discussions. The alternative is to “cold call” without notifying participants. 


Ungraded is typically best for goals wishing to build community. Consider using signposts/seeding to encourage this community participation.

Graded can be set up in several ways:

  • Manual scores the quality. Consider a rubric to share with participants to reduce ambiguity and introduce clear criteria. Include explanations with examples of high-quality and low-quality annotations and peer review comments.
  • Automatic is typically best for large courses or goals asking for unsubstantial engagement. Consider a complete or incomplete score to gauge the quantity over quality.
  • Combination asks a social annotation tool to identify a minimum number of posts by a deadline. Then, manually sift through participants’ activity to grade on quality.

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