Social annotation

Social annotation refers to the collective critical interpretation of media and often relates to the close reading of texts.  Digital tools for social annotation make this familiar scholarly practice into a more dynamic, collaborative, and interactive experience. Tools for PDF annotation, for example, allow students to highlight relevant passages, attach comments to those passages, and comment upon other students’ ideas. But digital tools for annotation can also build upon more traditional forms of annotation by layering and tagging annotations, allowing thematic layers to be turned on and off and to establish connections within a text or between a series of texts. These tools offer features that suggest new forms of assignments and motivate students to interact not only with their peers but also with the subject matter. Digital tools for social annotation can also prepare students for in-class discussions, allowing students to discover discussion prompts ahead of time and to flag parts of the text they find unclear. By making reading visible, to some degree, it provides a means to support students as they read.

Learning goals

  • Motivate students to interact not only with their peers but also with the subject matter.
  • Provide prompts for in-class discussions, allowing students to discover discussion points ahead of time and to flag parts of the text they find unclear.
  • Turn a reading into a shared learning object. Students learn how others are making sense of the text and how their positions relate to their peers.


  • The two main tools Princeton uses for social annotation, Perusall and Hypothesis, are effective to make reading collaborative because students can comment directly upon PDFs (and other forms of media). For discussions or group drafting assignments, Google Docs would be better.
  • Social annotation tools can encourage a sense of community by making an often isolating or individual practice a collective endeavor. This work can also facilitate in-class discussion. Have students or groups of students propose topics for discussion before each class by marking up the text. A sample prompt might ask students to look for the use of a particular literary device.
  • As with many digital assignments, it is best to create a grading rubric beforehand. This rubric will help clarify your teaching and learning goals for the activity and concretely convey your expectations to students. Both Perusall and Hypothesis are available through Canvas but are external tools that can be accessed within it. If you create rubrics in Canvas, be sure to create your rubric before the Perusall or Hypothesis assignment. You’ll want to link the rubric when creating the assignment.
  • Perusall contains some tools that might be advantageous for larger courses. Perusall supports some automated grading and groups carried over from the Canvas course site.
  • Social annotation can provide a more comfortable means of admitting confusion or certain challenges. This can both help students feel they are not alone if there are others who also find the material to be difficult and it provides an opportunity for students to learn from each other. This is also helpful to you; if there are lingering questions they can form the foundations of in-class discussions.
Student preparation

The basic idea of online annotation of PDFs or other media is fairly straightforward. Students tend to require very little instruction, but the McGraw Center can make available instructional handouts for both of these tools. Usually it is not necessary to set aside class time for training.

Posted by May 10, 2021