“Social Annotation: Tools for Teaching Reading” was a collaboration between Remote Humanities and Academic Technology Solutions. For more on this event, see “Reflections in Online Pedagogy: Social Annotation Panel Recap” on the Remote Humanities blog.

During the December 2020 panel discussion Social Annotation: Tools for Teaching Reading in the Humanities and Social Sciences (a collaboration between Remote Humanities and Academic Technology Solutions), three faculty panelists reflected on their experiences designing and facilitating social annotation exercises using Hypothes.is. These three faculty members – Miller Prosser (Associate Director, Digital Studies Program, Humanities Division), Hervé Reculeau (Associate Professor, Near Eastern Languages and Civilization, the Oriental Institute, and the College), and Jennifer Spruill (Senior Lecturer, Social Sciences Collegiate Division and co-Chair, “Power, Identity, Resistance” Core Sequence) – brought together a diversity of teaching fields, disciplinary methods, and pedagogical contexts across their remarks. In this brief blog post, we will revisit some of the many insights these faculty members shared and consider the broader pedagogical impact of social annotation, in the context of both remote/hybrid teaching and face-to-face instruction.


Background: On Social Annotation and Hypothes.is

Social annotation, the process of highlighting, marking up, and zooming in on the component parts of a text in the company of classmates and colleagues, forms an integral part of many instructors’ pedagogical practice in the humanities or social sciences classroom. Whether oriented toward a goal of comprehension, translation, formal or historical analysis, or revision, these communal acts of reading closely together often represent the cornerstone of pedagogies of interpretation and analysis – and, additionally, are frequently remembered with fondness by instructors and students alike as moments of keen insight and illumination. Digital tools for social annotation, such as Hypothes.is, present unique ways to sharpen and deepen such practices by transforming the text undergoing analysis into a shared space of exploration and by elongating the duration of annotation exercises through asynchronous opportunities for engagement.

Example Article with Hypothesis Annotations

An open-source social annotation tool, Hypothes.is enables students to engage in collaborative exercises in reading and interpretation down to the level of individual sentences and words on PDFs, web pages, and other web-based materials. Through a collapsible applet that loads in the right-side pane of the PDF or web page, students can create highlights and annotations tied to particular moments or features of the text, respond to their colleagues’ annotations, and create and search through tags. Using the Canvas – Hypothes.is integration, instructors can easily create social annotation activities, which students access directly through their courses’ Canvas sites. The Canvas integration offers instructors two ways to implement Hypothes.is exercises: through participatory activities, which appear as course Module Items, and as Assignments integrated with Canvas Gradebook, which allow the instructor to view and assess each student’s annotations.


Pedagogical Contexts and Outcomes

Digital exercises in social annotation have utility and resonance across disciplines, fields, and methods in the social sciences and humanities – much as do participatory exercises in close reading and interpretation in the physical classroom. By immersing themselves in such readerly collaboration, students iteratively hone their skills in the interpretive methods and modalities of a particular field and simultaneously work toward the specific learning objectives of their course. Together, these learning outcomes can range from sharpening interpretive practices (e.g. close/distant/surface reading, formalist analysis, historicist analysis, interventions informed by literary/cultural theory) to honing rhetoric and craft (e.g. working through revisions of student writing; reverse-engineering an effective article), developing fluency in the methods or metadiscourses of a new field (e.g. immersing introductory students in the conventions of a new-to-them field) or an additional language (e.g. completing collaborative translation exercises), and deepening students’ understanding of works’ stakes and intertextual resonances (e.g. identifying the contemporary resonances of a canonical work; interweaving engaged interlocutors through annotations).

Digital social annotation activities provide an opportunity for students to work closely with, to literally and figuratively roughen the surface of, important literary and theoretical works, populating the expansive digital margins of such texts with questions and insights, as Professor Hervé Reculeau reflects in the context of his teaching in the Humanities Core. For students, such activities can provide an accessible point of entry into unfamiliar contexts and difficult works by creating a collaborative space in which to venture questions, share points of confusion, and contribute intuitions, tentative observations, and not-yet-completed thoughts. Hypothes.is activities can be useful, as Professor Miller Prosser observes, in encouraging students to normalize the practice of capturing and sharing these initial and partial thoughts – something that can have a meaningful positive impact on the intellectual and social atmosphere of a class.

For instructors, digital social annotation activities offer unique opportunities for teaching and feedback. On the one hand, by devoting time and space to a shared, focused reading, such exercises enable instructors to provide students with formative feedback about their readerly engagements that is responsive to the concrete work they perform through their annotations. This process-oriented feedback is invaluable to students – and, moreover, can be difficult to provide during off-the-cuff activities in class sessions and in the context of final projects. On the other hand, students’ annotations provide invaluable feedback to instructors about what aspects of a text are exciting, confusing, difficult, or enabling, and which components of an interpretive modality students have mastered or are struggling to understand.


Incremental and Iterative Reading Practices

One invaluable affordance of social annotation activities in Hypothes.is lies in the ways students collaboratively focus on the practice of reading itself, rather than approaching reading merely as a means to an end or a straightforward process of decoding or receiving information. Because Hypothes.is exercises and assignments emphasize the process of reading as a crucial site of shared intellectual work, and because these activities are optimized for short- to medium-length materials (typically of fewer than 35 pages), digital social annotation presents myriad opportunities for creative pedagogical design. How, we ask ourselves in designing a Hypothes.is activity, do we want our students to interact with the text and with one another? What do we want our students to take from this newly dialogic engagement with course materials? And how will we challenge our students to approach this work incrementally and iteratively over the course of an entire term?

Group work is one effective way to design incremental social annotation exercises in which students approach texts through manageable component parts and collectively synthesize their observations and ideas into bigger-picture insights. By assigning groups to particular passages of a text in a shared Hypothes.is activity, or by creating separate Hypothes.is activities for sequential parts of a text for each group, instructors enable students to engage deeply with a specific portion of a text and to take on a stewardship role in gathering reflections and insights about that portion to share with the entire class. This framework for incremental group work supports the flipped-classroom pedagogical model and distributes responsibility and urgency among students. As Professor Jennifer Spruill observes in the context of her teaching in the Social Sciences Core, having a focused point of entry and equitable distribution of responsibility among students can make the daunting process of mastering a new form of reading – or a difficult theoretical tract – both empowering and impactful. Students report that engaging in group-based social annotation feels intuitive and low-stakes, akin to casual conversation or texting; at the same time, Spruill describes, synthesizing these observations across groups leads to a robust critical and creative engagement.

Additionally, all three faculty panelists emphasize the longer-term pedagogical impact of using social annotation iteratively over the course of the term. Just as iterative reading passes – working through and annotating a text multiple times with a different focus on each pass (e.g. first comprehending an argument, then rhetorically deconstructing it, and finally parsing its intertextual resonances) – enable students to deepen their readerly practice, iterative use of Hypothes.is annotation activities allows students to sharpen their readerly skills and their practice of collaborative thinking throughout the quarter.


Interweaving Synchronous and Asynchronous Engagement

As we challenge our students to develop and reflect on their reading practices, it becomes all the more crucial for us to think about how, as instructors, we synthesize students’ asynchronous work (reading assignments they complete prior to class sessions) and shared synchronous interactions (“live” class meetings in person or on Zoom). While the circumstances of remote and hybrid teaching make the challenge of interweaving the asynchronous and synchronous components of a course particularly visible – and complicated! – this pedagogical challenge is just as critical in face-to-face instruction.

Our three faculty panelists offered several strategies for integrating students’ independent and collaborative asynchronous annotations in Hypothes.is into synchronous sessions. Professor Prosser suggests providing a simple clarification to students, prior to course meetings, of which aspects or parts of a text will be a central focus of future discussions. Professor Reculeau proposes emphasizing the outcomes of student annotations as a starting point to synchronous discussions, as a way of approaching course texts through the work students have already initiated on Hypothes.is. Professor Spruill describes the usefulness of treating Hypothes.is annotations as a form of student work comparable to weekly discussion posts: a diverse swath of material generated by students before class that can intuitively shape topics for collective discussion and student groupings for small-group conversations (in breakout rooms or in person).


Hypothes.is Pilot Program and Resources

To use Hypothes.is in your teaching and access support and documentation resources, join the Hypothes.is pilot program and check out the thirty-minute workshop “Getting Started with Hypothes.is” on Teaching Remotely.


Resources and References

Brown, Monica, and Benjamin Croft. “Social Annotation and an Inclusive Praxis for Open Pedagogy in the College Classroom.” Journal of Interactive Media in Education 1 (2020): p. 8.

Cornell University Center for Teaching Innovation. “Social Annotation.” 2021.

Dean, Jeremy. “10 Ways to Annotate with Students.” Hypothes.is. 25 August 2015.

Hypothes.is. “Annotation Tips for Students.”


Image Attribution

@SincerelyMedia on Unsplash. 2019.