Back to School with Annotation: 10 Ways to Annotate with Students


It’s back-to-school season and I find myself once again encouraging teachers to discuss course readings with their students using collaborative web annotation technologies like Hypothesis. Though relatively new to Hypothesis, I’ve been making this pitch for a few years now, but in conversations with educators of late I’ve come to realize that we often mean different things by the word “annotate.” Annotation connotes something distinct in specific subject areas, at different  grade and skill levels, and within certain teaching philosophies. This will be the first semester during which Hypothesis has an active education department and so in the spirit these first days of the school year, I thought it might be worth exploring what we really mean when we say, “annotate.”

Annotation is typically perceived as a means to an end. As marginal note-taking it often is the basis for questions asked in class discussion or points made in a final paper. But annotation can also be a kind of end in itself, or at least more than a rest-stop on the way to intellectual discovery. This becomes especially true when annotation is brought into the relatively public and collaborative space of social reading online. Digital marginalia as such requires a redefinition or at least expanded understanding of what is traditionally meant by the act of “annotation.”

Billy Collins’ poem “Marginalia” outlines various ways that people have annotated throughout history, including in formal education contexts. But even within pre-digital student marginalia there can be a wide range of types of annotation from defining terms and explaining allusions to analytic commentary to more creative responses to the text at hand. As annotation becomes social and media-rich as it does using Hypothesis and other web annotation technologies, these species of marginalia only further proliferate.

For those curious about integrating annotation exercises into an assignment or a course, below I outline ten practical ways that one might annotate with a class. This list is by no means exhaustive–the larger point is that there are a lot of different ways for students and teachers to annotate. I’d love to hear about your experiences with annotation in the classroom in notes and comments here or even in your own blog posts on Hypothesis. My hope is that over the course of the coming semesters, Hypothesis will develop as a community of educators sharing their ideas, assignments, successes, and failures. As always, feel free to contact me at [email protected] to chat further about collaborative annotation! (For a more technical guide to using Hypothesis, see our tutorials on getting started here.)

1. Teacher Annotations

Pre-populate a text with questions for students to reply to in annotations or notes elucidating important points as they read.

Teacher annotation as a question on Hypothesis.

One of the amazing aspects of social reading is that you can be inside the text with your students while they are reading, facilitating their comprehension, inspiring their analysis, and observing their confusion and insight. It’s about as close as you can get to the intimacy of in-class interaction online. You can guide students through the reading with your annotations, offering context and possible interpretations. This allows you to be the Norton editor of your course readings, but attentive to the particular themes of your course or local contexts of your classroom community. Or you can provoke student responses to the text through annotating with questions to be answered in replies to your annotations. Looking at responses to a question posed in the margin of a text is a great starting point for class discussion in a blended course. In the classroom, students can be prompted to expand on points begun as annotations to jumpstart the conversation. And when there is no physical classroom space, as in online courses, annotation can be a means for the instructor to have a similar guiding presence and to create an engaging and engaged community of readers.

The real pedagogical innovation of collaborative annotation, however, is that students are empowered as knowledge producers in their own right, so most of my suggested classroom annotation practices revolve around a variety of student-centered annotation activities in which they are the ones posing the questions and teachers are co-learners in the reading process. There are also other use cases, however, for teacher annotation, such as using web annotation to comment on student writing published online.

2. Annotation as Gloss

Have students look up difficult words or unknown allusions in a text and share their research as annotations.

Annotation bookshelf by Lau Design.
Annotation bookshelf by Lau Design.

Practical across a wide range of skill levels, this exercise can span from simply creating a list of vocabulary words from a text for study to presenting, as a class or individually, a text annotated like a scholarly volume. We’ve seen this kind of exercise completed on great works of literature as well as scientific research papers. Think of the activity as creating a kind of inline Wikipedia on top of your course reading. For difficult texts, sharing the burden of the research necessary for comprehension can help students better understand their reading. And there is something incredibly powerful about students beginning to imagine themselves as scholars, responsible for guiding a real audience through a text, whether their own peers or a broader intellectual community. Students can be encouraged to practice skills like rephrasing research material appropriately and citing sources using different formatting styles. And, of course, glossing can be combined with more insightful annotation as well.

Protip: If you plan to annotate across multiple texts with a class, have students use a course tag (like “Eng101DrDeanFall15”) in all of their annotations. Tagging in this way allows both teacher and students to follow the group’s work on a class stream of activity. Here’s an example of what such a class tag stream looks like from one of our most active educators, Greg McVerry. More on the pedagogy of tags in this tutorial. Note: very soon (in a matter of weeks) we will be launching a private group feature that will streamline this workflow–annotations will be publishable to a specific group and that group will have a stream that can be followed.

3. Annotation as Question

Have students highlight, tag, and annotate words or passages that are confusing to them in their readings.

An annotation need not be, and often is not, an answer. A simple question mark in the margin of a book can flag a word or passage for discussion. And such discussions can be generative of important explication and analysis. Directing students to annotate in this way creates a sort of heat map for the instructor that can be used to zero in on troubling sections and subjects or spark class discussion. Tags categorizing the particular problem could be used as a simple way to prompt clarification (vocab, plts, research methods, etc.).

While the teacher can respond to such student annotations, a possible follow up exercise could have students respond to each other’s questions instead.

4. Annotation as Close Reading

Have students identify formal textual elements and broader social and historical contexts at work in specific passages.

Online annotation powerfully enacts the careful selection of text for in-depth analysis that is the hallmark of much high school and college English and language arts curriculum. Using web annotation, students are required to literally select small pieces of meaningful evidence from a document for specific analysis. Teachers can direct students to identify textual features (word choice, repetition, imagery, metaphor, etc.) or relevant broader contexts (historical, biographical, cultural, etc.) for passages of a text, and then prompt them to develop a short argument based on such evidence. Collaborative close reading can be especially effective in that multiple students can build off each other’s interpretations to demonstrate how deep textual analysis can go. Teachers implementing the Common Core State Standards for reading might pay special attention to this use case for annotation in the classroom.

Common Core State Standards for Reading, Anchor Standard 1.
Common Core State Standards for Reading, Anchor Standard 1.

Some teachers will use web annotation as a tool throughout the semester for this purpose. Students thus gain regular practice in close reading and build ideas towards more substantive, summative assignments. Such assignments can also begin as collaborative exercises done by the entire class and culminate with individual or small group annotation projects.

5. Annotation as Rhetorical Analysis

Have students mark and explain the use of rhetorical strategies in online articles or essays.

Whether analyzed as a class or individually, a clearly argumentative piece should be chosen for this assignment, perhaps from an op-ed page in a newspaper or magazine. Students might be asked first to simply identify rhetorical strategies (like ethos, pathos, and logos) using the tag feature in annotations created with Hypothesis. On a second pass, they can be asked to elaborate on how and why a certain strategy is being used by the author. Identification of rhetorical fallacies could be built into this or a related assignment as well. Note: in order to make such an exercise more streamlined, we plan in the near to future allow users to pre-populate a set of controlled terms with which a group can tag their annotations.

Combined with exercises six and nine, annotation as rhetorical analysis could be part of a composition course that also has students map arguments in a controversy using annotation and then begin their own advocacy through annotation of primary sources mapped and analyzed. (This is how the rhetoric department at UT-Austin, where I taught while getting my PhD., structures their freshman composition courses.) A twist on this assignment could ask students to analyze their own persuasive prose in this way–discussion of such self-reflexive annotation on one’s own writing is a whole other category of annotation, probably deserving of a blog post in itself.

6. Annotation as Opinion

Have students share their personal opinions on a controversial topic as discussed by an article.

A lot of how people are interacting with content online today—commenting on web articles, Tweeting about them with brief notes–is a kind of annotation. At Hypothesis we might think of web annotation as a more rigorous form of such engagement with language and ideas on the Internet. Framing one’s opinions as annotations of specific statements or facts is a reminder that our arguments should be grounded in actual evidence. In any case, allowing students to express their opinions in the margins of the Web, and helping them become responsible and thoughtful in those expressions, is a huge part of what it means to be literate both on the Web and in democratic society more generally. Students could be asked simply to respond to the reading with their thoughts, as in a dialectical reading journal, or employ specific cultural or persuasive strategies in their rhetorical intervention.

Again, this advocacy exercise could be a summative assignment within a unit that uses Hypothesis to complete annotation activities like those described in ways five and nine here.

7. Annotation as Multimedia Writing

Have students annotate with images and video or integrate images and video into other types of annotations.

A student annotation with evocative use of images on
A student annotation with evocative use of images on

One of the unique aspects of online annotation (and online writing in general) is the ability to include multimedia elements in the composition process. We’ve found many teachers and students excited to make use of animated GIFs in annotation. The use of images can simply be representative (this is a reference to Lincoln with a photo of the 16th president), but more advanced students can be taught to think about how images themselves make arguments and serve other rhetorical purposes.

It is advisable to spend a lesson introducing the idea of digital writing to students with particular attention to the use of images, covering everything from search to use policies and attribution. More traditional teachers may be less accustomed to assessing such multimedia compositions and should spend some time thinking about and explaining to their students a grading rubric.

8. Annotation as Independent Study

Have students explore the Internet on their own with some limited direction (find an article from a respectable source on a topic important to you personally), exercising traditional literacy skills (define difficult words, identify persuasive strategies, etc.).

Many of the above exercises presume that students are annotating for the most part together on a shared course text. But the nature of web annotation is that we can see the notes of others even if we are not reading the same text. In this way, we can attend to annotations as texts themselves. Like a friend’s Facebook page or Twitter feed, seeing someone else navigate the world can be interesting. And through web annotation students can be taught to navigate the digital world responsibly and thoughtfully. Protip: because each Hypothesis user’s annotations are streamed on their public “My Annotations” page, teachers can monitor and assess student work there rather than on individual texts if so desired. (You can click on a username attached to an annotation or search the Hypothesis stream for a username to locate this page. Here’s mine.)

Whether or not one goes so far as to let students roam free on the open Web applying their classroom learning, we have found it to be valuable to have a unit develop from collaborative work to independent or small group work. Students might start off annotating together on a few select texts, getting a sense of what annotation means and how a particular platform like Hypothesis works, but by the end of a term become responsible for glossing or analyzing a single text or set of texts themselves.

9. Annotation as Annotated Bibliography

Have students research a topic or theme and tag and annotate relevant texts across the Internet.

Tagging in page-level annotations as social bookmarking.
Tagging in page-level annotations as social bookmarking.

This is a different kind of annotation than largely discussed above. Here we are annotating on the level of the document rather than on a particular selection of text. (Users can create unanchored annotations for this purpose using the annotation icon on the sidebar without selecting any particular text within a document.) But this annotation exercise practices solid research skills and can be used as preparation for research assignments. In fact, using annotation as a annotated bibliography assignment is an excellent way for teachers to follow and guide student research during the process itself. The result of this assignment will be something useful for a paper such as a summary of the major stakeholders of a particular issue and how they articulate their positions.

Of course this kind of annotation as page-level commentary can be combined with more fine-grained attention through annotation to the texts of these tagged documents. In addition to outlining sources needed for a paper, the student can begin to break down those sources for close reading within an essay.

10. Annotation as Creative Act

Have students respond creatively to their reading with their own poetry or prose or visual art as annotations.

Book art by Kaspen for the Anagram Bookstore.
Book art by Kaspen for the Anagram Bookstore.

Annotation need not be overtly analytical. Whether in writing or using other media, students can respond creatively to texts under study through annotation as well, inserting themselves within the intertextual web that is the history of literature and culture. One creative writing exercise might be to have students annotate in the voices of a characters from a novel being read. Or to have them re-imagine passages written as newspaper stories. Nathan Blom’s Annotated Lear Project at LaGuardia Arts High School is a great example of students creatively responding to a text through annotation.

Students can also use their imaginations to annotate texts with their own drawings, photographs, or videos inline with the relevant sources of textual inspiration. Whether completed individually or collaboratively this exercise can result in some wonderful, illustrated editions of course texts.