What follows is a short essay on some of the ways in which annotation (annotation in general, not just online annotation) can improve learning and how it can change students’ relation to texts. The second part of the essay specifically addresses the possible benefits of the social dimension of online tools, as well as their potential drawbacks. Throughout I draw on relatively few quantitative studies that have been done on online annotation but mostly find my inspiration in pedagogical models such as Randall Bass’s theory of cognitive apprenticeship (found in Engines of Inquiry and in his Introduction to the Heath Anthology), which I have found very helpful in thinking through how to integrate annotation in course design. 

Please feel free to annotate the text below using I would love to hear your thoughts!

Annotation: From Product to Process

I believe that annotation can improve learning in many different ways. What I find most important is how it can help students move from merely employing what John McClymer and Lucia Knoles (1992) call “coping mechanisms” to achieving “genuine learning.” This means that instead of using coping mechanisms, various “a-critical techniques” (42) that students develop during their schooling, students are taught to address puzzling elements and confront that what they do not know. When reading a poem, for example, coping requires students to ignore all complex or contradictory elements, while genuine learning can only take place when those confusing elements are sought out.

On a broader scale, this can help classroom instruction move away from a stress-inducing focus on end products, as students learn that the quality of their analysis, and their performance in the course, depends on how they engage with the puzzling and contradictory aspects of a text. They learn that performance depends on the whole process, not just on the final product. To me, this is especially relevant in a test- and performance-driven school culture like ours. Even though it is a relatively minor adjustment, annotation can shift focus from end product to process and help alleviate students’ fear of failure by showing that learning is often about not knowing, indirection, and ambiguity. This awareness also increases students’ confidence in the face of complex theoretical texts, or texts from a distant time or place, as they recognize there is no one “correct” answer or interpretation.

Social Annotation and Cognitive Apprenticeship

Annotation becomes especially compelling when it becomes social: when students can share and see each other’s marginal notes. As students share “drafts of reading,” they can learn from each other’s interpretations and analyze how and why these might differ. Randall Bass’ theory of cognitive apprenticeship (1997a) shows why and where in the learning process annotation can be useful. In his apprenticeship model, students go through four different phases: modeling (the expert shows the apprentice how to do something), scaffolding (the expert divides up the task in manageable parts and gives the apprentice the support to complete it), fading (the expect gradually fades away from the process and lets the apprentice do more) and coaching (all throughout the process, the expert coaches the apprentice).

In this model, annotation serves to model expert thinking processes and scaffold larger assignments. It literally makes thinking visible. As an instructor, you can show how a literary scholar or historian, for example, reads and analyzes (primary) sources before writing about them. And students see not just how you, as an expert, read and make meaning, but also how this process works for their peers. If students see the value of struggling with a text and teasing out contradictory elements, and if this becomes a recognized part of the learning process, they are less likely to avoid or just “cope” with the material.

Online Social Annotation: Interpretation is Social

Online social annotation tools add another dimension to the learning process. These tools allow students to read and annotate a digital text collectively and simultaneously. Together, the annotations function like a conversation that is taking place around the text. As you are quite literally on the page together, you “share” the task of understanding with a group, which, according to Bass, “help[s] teach the idea…that the process of expressing one’s ideas is fundamentally social, not only in the desirability of having an audience to help form and practice ideas, but in the idea that the discourse into which one enters is fundamentally formative of the expression itself” (1997a). So, while you are making meaning together, you recognize that “you never think alone,” as Bass says, and that interpretation is individual but also always social.

Besides these larger, meta-cognitive effects, online social annotation tools can have more practical consequences too, such as giving instructors insight into how students learn. Knowing what students struggle with or focus on can help instructors to tailor class time to students’ needs and areas of interest. Students are also more likely to learn from their peers, and there is a greater continuity between the work done in and out of the classroom.

Multimedia Networks of Meaning

Also, those tools that allow annotators to pull in outside information, such as links to websites with contextual information, dictionary entries, or image, audio and video, really make a text come alive for students. Rather than a static, one-dimensional artifact, such digital texts become “networks of meaning” (Bass 1977b). No longer static objects, annotations become part of the text, in a sense changing the text and shifting its center. As Bass (1997b) explains, in our post-print paradigm texts are “not linear but multilinear, not univocal but dialogic, organized not to tell a story but to open up a complex matrix of issues and perspectives.” We are no longer reduced to one scholarly edition with a selection of scholarly articles but can draw on and bring into conversation a vast online world of information.

The destabilizing and decentering of the source text that occurs in online, collaborative annotation has positive consequences for the classroom: first of all, for a literature or any other class concerned with covering a certain number of foundational or key texts, this approach can facilitate a shift from the “coverage model” and concerns over the literary canon, to a model driven by inquiry that aims to give students “strategic knowledge” rather than “domain knowledge” (Bass 1997a). A second but very important consequence is that students learn they are more than mere consumers of ideas. Instead, they can be co-creators of meaning. This recognition and change in perspective is especially powerful in schools that serve minority and low-income students as well as other groups that have never before have been in positions to shape culture. Right now, having a digital voice gives you power to participate in those shaping conversations.

To summarize the benefits of annotation, we can say that:

Annotation can improve learning by:

  • Asking students to move away from employing “coping mechanisms” to achieving “genuine learning.”
  • Showing students that the quality of their answers depends on how they engage with the puzzling and contradictory aspects of texts.
  • Alleviating students’ fear of failure by showing that learning is often about not knowing, indirection, and ambiguity.
  • Shifting focus from end product to process.
  • Improving students’ confidence when reading complex and often distant texts.

Social Annotation can further improve learning by:

  • Allowing students and instructors to share drafts of reading, which makes thinking visible.
  • Giving students insight into how experts and peers read and understand texts.
  • Giving instructors insight into students’ learning process, allowing them to tailor instruction to their needs.
  • Making reading and interpretation a social and collaborative experience.
  • Showing that meaning-making is individual but also always social.
  • Turning texts from static artifacts into networks of meaning.
  • Decentering and destabilizing texts, and thereby de-hierarchizing the learning process.
  • Making students co-creators of meaning and culture.
  • Reducing distance to texts and giving students sense of ownership.

Quantitative Studies on Annotation

When we look at quantitative and qualitative studies that measure the effects of annotation on student performance, we have to recognize that there is not a lot of data yet, especially for annotation in higher education. I’m currently using in a hybrid Great Works class at Baruch College, and will soon share my evaluations of the use of this online tool on this site in an effort to contribute to this field. 

As said, so far, just a few studies have measured the effects of online social annotation tools in higher education. Still, in a comparative literature review of most of them, Elena Novak, Rim Razzouk and Tristan Johnson (2012) conclude that most studies support the use of online annotation tools in the undergraduate classroom. These studies show that these tools promote attention, communication, and organization (40), and contribute to improved critical thinking, metacognitive skills, and reading comprehension (48). Online annotation has further been shown to augment time-on-task and give important feedback to the instructor who can then tailor class instruction to better meet students’ needs. Finally, tools that allow students to create links to outside, contextual information turn words on a screen into more engaging, multidimensional spaces, which has also been shown to benefit student learning.

The potential pitfalls of annotation tools are that the marginal comments can become distracting, especially when there are a lot of them. Students have reported that they were more interested in the annotations than the text itself (Novak 28). Ideally, a tool allows students to collapse a comment thread or sort by relevance or popularity. Other pitfalls are possible technical glitches and incompatibility with certain browsers or software. Also, since annotation has to feel “effortless”–it should be as easy as writing in the margins of a book and by no means become a burden to the student–a tool’s design and user-friendliness is of key importance.  

Works Cited

Anderson, Sam. 2011. “What I Really Want Is Someone Rolling Around in the Text.” New York Times Magazine, March 6. 

Bass, Randall. 1997a. “Engines of Inquiry: Teaching, Technology, and Learner-Centered Approaches to Culture and History.” In Engines of Inquiry: A Practical Guide for Using Technology in Teaching American Culture. Washington, D.C.: American Studies Crossroads Project, American Studies Association.

–. 1997b. “New Canons, New Media: American Literature in the Electronic Age.” In The Heath Anthology of American Literature Instructor’s Guide. Boston: Houghton Mifflin. For the online edition, please click here 

McClymer, John F. and Lucia Z. Knoles. 1992. “Ersatz Learning, Inauthentic Testing.” Journal on Excellence in College Teaching 3: 33-50.

Novak, Elena, Rim Razzouk, Tristan E. Johnson. 2012. “The Educational Use of Social Annotation Tools in Higher Education: A Literature Review.” Internet and Higher Education 15: 39-49.

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