Forget thumb-sized sticky notes and erasing penciled-in comments from borrowed books. Or don’t forget because all of that is nostalgic and important to your learning story. In fact, research says that annotating helps a reader engage with, analyze, and comprehend a text in large part by keeping us active and attentive to the activity of reading. When we slow down to annotate, we ask questions and consider our positions in relation to the text. You need not sacrifice these practices and their learning benefits when you and your students read online; build on your personal practice with collaborative annotation tools that let you read, respond, and connect to others.

Annotate collaboratively

Tools like Hypothes.is, Diigo, and Genius will not only let you annotate an online text, but they’ll allow you to share, exchange, and respond to annotations of others who’ve also commented on the text. You might use this functionality in your class to:

  • Facilitate student discussion around a text
  • View student annotations and offer feedback — are they doing more summarizing than analyzing? How would you like to encourage students to respond to a text?
  • Assist critical reading — record details about the source as well as readers’ thoughts and analyses
  • Pose reading questions and have students respond in a thread
  • Peer review — apply the tool to student work

Tools and how-to’s

Hypothes.is is a leading collaborative annotation tools for educators. This tool allows for private, public and closed-group annotations. Check out their Education page and Quick-Start guide for getting set up yourself.

Using annotation tools in your browser

Genius web annotator — an offshoot of Genius rap, which lets users annotate lyrics — allows public-only annotation. The tool is simple and dynamic. Get started using their guide.

Kami is an add-on for Google Drive that will allow you to collaboratively annotate shared PDFs. Get the add-on. Alternatively, use the comment feature in Google Docs to annotate works-in-progress.

Interested in something more research-focused? Both Diigo and Evernote are focused on helping you save and organize materials that you find online. They also allow you to annotate and while they put less emphasis on collaborative annotation, sharing is easy.

Annotate to connect

In addition to adding commentary, collaborative annotation can help students connect what you’re reading to other resources. For example, Genius and Hypothes.is allow users to annotate with more than text. Include an image/emoji with your annotation or link to a related article, webpage or video. Prompt students to get creative by assigning image-only annotation exercises or focus on research by asking for every annotation to link and explain the connection to a related article.

You can also use annotations to “tag” a text; like hashtags on social media, all tagged materials can be collected in one stream. Use tags to explore where else users are talking about #personalfinance or #rhetoric or ask students to use tags to track where and how they see connections. Tags can also be helpful for organizing your own online reading, annotating, and research — use them to mark places in a text or texts where a research focus is reflected. Learn more about how to use tags on Hypothes.is with this tutorial or try it out with Diigo.

Finally and importantly, annotating online and in the open can connect the ideas inside your class to a larger, public conversation. Both Hypothes.is and Genius support public annotations, allowing you and your students to engage with thinkers from beyond your classroom who are pursuing related ideas. Use public annotations to put your class in a broader context.

Research / Further resources

Dean, J. & Schulten, K. (2015, November 12). Skills and Strategies | Annotating to Engage, Analyze, Connect and Create. The Learning Network: Teaching and Learning with the New York Times.

Marshall, C. C., & Brush, A. B. (2004, June). Exploring the relationship between personal and public annotations. In Digital Libraries, 2004. Proceedings of the 2004 Joint ACM/IEEE Conference on (pp. 349-357). IEEE.

Razon, S., Turner, J., Johnson, T. E., Arsal, G., & Tenenbaum, G. (2012). Effects of a collaborative annotation method on students’ learning and learning-related motivation and affect. Computers in Human Behavior, 28(2), 350-359.