Annotation for Education

Annotation is a longstanding tradition. Old manuscripts weren’t only illuminated with drop-caps and decorative illustrations — they were also annotated with notes. In the modern day, annotation can be done by hand, à la writing in the margins or via digital tools such as code comments, digital bookmarks, shared documents or “social annotation” tools like Hypothesis.

Some people annotate for fun, as with doodling. Some people annotate to learn, taking notes or using study strategies as they read. Annotation helps people work through ideas in a visual, idiosyncratic way. It dis- and reassembles texts, adding metacognitive thought to otherwise static readings.

Annotation in the Classroom

There are many ways to use annotation in the classroom beyond note-taking. Annotation is a learning technique like anything else, and its value lies in the way it can be worked into different situations. Aside from studies with a physical component, such as dance or sports, annotation is well suited to many subjects. (Even then, on certain platforms, viewers can annotate video. For example, dances could be annotated with video callouts.)

While adding annotation as a required class component isn’t new, the flexibility inherent to the task and the deeper understanding of its value has made it particularly useful for a wide variety of learning spaces. Students can annotate their work and submit it through online dropboxes. Groups can annotate together, even with hybrid or remote classes. It can be asynchronous or even have a real-time component.

The book Annotation, released by The MIT Press, began life as an online textbook, open to annotations from the public on The MIT Press open site. Not only does it investigate the value of classroom annotation — and annotation as a general education strategy promoting deep reading and intertextual study — this site preserves community engagement through annotations submitted in 2019. It mimics the way that students can collaborate online, reading and assessing a book together.

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Solo Annotation and Individual Learning

Student annotation, when done privately, can reinforce ideas from a text. It can be transformative, linking concepts together in ways that the text itself can’t. Sometimes odd, seemingly subversive mnemonics can be connected to ideas through annotation, building memory scaffolds. It’s important to let students know if these annotations are to be turned in, or if they are to be private.

Students can create retrieval practice materials as they take notes. For example, as they read a Shakespearean play, they can annotate certain lines with questions. After the text is read and annotated, the notes that remain become retrieval practice questions. In effect, they create their own question pools for self-quizzing.

Students can also use annotation as a reflective tool when learning new practical skills. Not only can they annotate the instructions, but they can take notes on what they’ve done and why. These traces of the beginner’s mind will be invaluable as they progress, letting them remain open to new ideas.

Shared Annotation Strategies and Commented Code

Shared annotation is an option too. As with the open textbook example, students can add comments to shared documents in order to create conversation and explore a text together. This is true not only for static documents, like PDFs, but also for editable texts (such as shared Google Docs) and shared coding notebooks.

For example, commenting on code when shared with other people — either with teams, as with pair programming, or with larger groups — gives insight into thought processes and provides scaffolding for projects. As a part of project-based learning (PBL), this documentation piece elaborates on learning by doing, and it promotes real-world, industry-focused behaviors for students going into fields involving code.

Photo by Mimi Thian on Unsplash

Most coding languages provide a means of commenting out code. For notebook-based languages, like the Wolfram Language, comments can be embedded into notebooks. This annotation can even act as conversation, much like the Track Changes in a Word Document can be threaded to facilitate an exchange of ideas.

A student could submit work via a notebook, either through a file upload in a learning management system (LMS) or sent via email. In addition to their research and calculations, they could annotate their thoughts on how they approached the task, questions that came up as they were progressing and other learning tangents. The teacher could then respond to questions or ideas expressed through the comments, adding a metatextual layer to learning.

Shared annotation, be it through commented documents or social annotation tools, is particularly useful in remote and hybrid learning environments. It can supplement forum-based discussion — or even replace it. Because of its often asynchronous nature, shared annotation can be a useful way to engage students in deeper discussions without relying on videoconferences that may be inaccessible for some.

Adding Annotation to Your Classroom

Scholar Remi Kalir suggests an annotation exercise to add to classes from the very start: annotate the syllabus. Particularly with the urgency that educators feel in remaining flexible with the upcoming school year, having the syllabus share this fluidity can be both comforting and empowering to students, who take a role in creating this open classroom environment.

If that’s too daunting, consider adding an annotation-based assignment to your LMS or your virtual classroom. Have students annotate worksheets and upload their notes. Integrate web-based tools such as Hypothesis or social bookmarking to assigned readings. Consider different annotation methods: what about creating video annotations through WeVideo? Commented coding notebooks?

Annotation is a powerful tool. Whether solo or shared, remote or in-person, it can reinvigorate discussion in exciting ways. It’s useful both for self-paced learners and students in traditional settings.

About the blogger:

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Jesika Brooks

Jesika Brooks is an editor and bookworm with a Master of Library and Information Science degree. She works in the field of higher education as an educational technology librarian, assisting with everything from setting up Learning Management Systems to teaching students how to use edtech tools. A lifelong learner herself, she has always been fascinated by the intersection of education and technology. She edits the Tech-Based Teaching blog (and always wants to hear from new voices!).



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