Social annotation

Social annotation is an educational buzzword you may have come across in recent times. This article will introduce you to the concept and take you through examples, strategies and other considerations. References and further readings are provided at the end.

What is social annotation?

Social annotation is the process of note-taking, marking up and commenting on a commonly accessible text, media or artefact. This could be for several purposes, including imparting information, sharing commentary, sparking conversation, or aiding learning (Kalir & Garcia, 2019).

Why is social annotation important for student learning?

Social annotation:

  • Increases time spent reading and encourages students to pay more attention to the text, comprehend more of the content, and read to completion
  • Fosters a peer-to-peer learning environment by engaging students in a discussion of the material,
  • Encourages students to have autonomy in their learning and reduces the dependence on the subject coordinator as the authority on the topics
  • Creates space for all students to contribute to the discussion, thus breaking break down hierarchies to allow more marginalised students a voice
  • Can improve metacognitive and critical thinking skills.

Annotation work that happens cooperatively or collaboratively is where students will benefit most. Explicit social annotation (summarising or synthesising the text and adding new connections and meanings) (Marshall,1997) is likely to lead to deeper understanding and engagement with text and peers. Social annotation tools like Feedback Fruits Interactive Document/Video/Audio and Perusall can support the activities needed for ‘explicit’ annotation. For best effect, there are some techniques that you should employ and considerations to be aware of.

Which social annotation techniques and strategies are your colleagues using?

1. Pre-reading and flipped classroom

Glen Currie, Faculty of Engineering and Information Technology, was looking for a way to overcome the challenge of students attending class without having attempted their pre-reading. He now uses Perusall to ‘flip’ the classroom. Students are assigned pre-reading in Perusall to complete before attending a lecture. Students must read the material and comment, upvote, and answer each other's queries. On average, his students spend 3.5 hours completing and annotating their readings per week. Some benefits that Glen has found are that students better comprehend the material, students support one another through peer learning, and Glen is better able to focus class time on points of confusion, made apparent through the social commentary. After receiving positive feedback from students, he has pushed this strategy to four subjects.

Sarah Yang Spencer, Faculty of Business and Economics, similarly uses Perusall to assign case studies pre-reading for class. Using the tool over four semesters, she has seen how the activity encourages students to complete their readings and has dramatically improved their critical thinking skills. Sarah has found that Perusall gives students the time and space to think deeply about problems, resulting in students (even the more introverted ones) engaging and offering high-quality commentary. She also noted that at the start of the semester, students would rely more heavily on her for prompts and guidance, but her presence is required less and less as students become more independent and self-sufficient, depending on one another rather than the instructor. Sarah remarks, “I never thought Perusall would be so useful; it has done so much more than I expected.”

2. Improving literacy and language comprehension

Delia Lin and Michael Broughton, Faculty of Arts, teach into the Master of Translation and use Perusall to assign the weekly readings. Students highlight text and ask and answer questions. To scaffold the readings, Michael will also prompt students by asking questions related to the material. Michael has found that an added benefit is that students who do not speak the reading language as a first language can use the audio capabilities of the tool to comprehend the text better. Delia has found that the student annotations and comments provide student-to-teacher feedback opportunities - helping her to understand their interests and perspectives, which then contribute to her subject's design and development. In a sense, students become co-owners of the subject which further promotes student engagement.

3. Support assessment

Brendan Cullen, Faculty of Veterinary and Agricultural Sciences, has used the social annotation tool within Feedback Fruits to support assessment. One of the assignments for his subjects is a report submission. To help students understand the report criteria, Brendan created a sample report with some of the common mistakes he had seen before and posed questions for the students. Through the FeedbackFruits platform, students could analyse the sample report and respond to his questions. He found that this exercise was useful to get students thinking critically about the report. Students commented that it helped to clarify the requirements for the assignment.


As with other learning technologies, there are some potential pitfalls or challenges to consider when implementing social annotation tools and activities. Here we have highlighted a few strategies to make for a more seamless experience.

Offering the carrot

Motivating students to complete activities is an ongoing challenge. Glen Currie and Sarah Yang Spencer agree that scoring is important. Even attributing a small percentage of student marks to a social annotation activity can help to motivate students to complete it. Sarah has found that scoring provides motivation at the beginning of the semester, but once they form the habit, it becomes less critical and students become more intrinsically motivated. Glen and Sarah however both recommend allowing flexibility in the marking - for example, ‘best of five’ responses or offering to drop a score or two. Other ways to motivate are to ensure the prompts and activities are clearly linked to what students need to do for their assessment.

Minimising overload and frustration

With the introduction of any new learning technology, we risk overloading students with tech requirements rather than the activity's requirements. Training students in how to use the tool and how to be selective in their use of annotation can assist. This can be done via introductory and icebreaker activities providing low-stakes opportunities to learn the tools and techniques before formal activities or assessment. Sarah Yang Spencer sets aside time in the first class to explain her social annotation expectations to her students and provides a ‘test-run’ case study. Clear prompts and encouraging students to read the whole text and view others’ posts first prior to responding can also help.

Framing and prompts to get the best discussion

The framing and prompts you use when introducing a text can influence the type of responses you receive (Wranovix & Isbell, 2020). For example, providing a question that students respond to can be helpful to kickstart a discussion. However, if you want a range of student perspectives, prompting can potentially have a negative effect by leading the type of analysis students provide (Wranovix & Isbell, 2020). Pay attention to your prompts and how your students respond. If you find students are hesitant to offer new perspectives, consider asking more open-ended questions or reducing your involvement in the discussion. You can also help make confusion socially acceptable by encouraging (or even requiring or incentivising) students to highlight or comment on points of confusion.

Gauging and measuring what students have learned

It is not always possible to gauge whether students have engaged with or understood the whole text by reviewing their annotations. While it is likely they will read the text multiple times, there is no guarantee - they may dip in and out or only be engaging with a section (Gao, 2013). Consider an additional activity that asks students to synthesise the article or the broader topic to measure comprehension further. This could be part of the annotation activity itself as a specific question or prompt that students respond to, or it may be a follow-up activity or a component of a larger assessment.

Managing safety and vulnerability

Annotation can be an act of ‘vulnerability’ (Kalir, 2020) and can be risky for students from underrepresented groups or those for whom English is not their first language. This will also depend on the subject matter being dealt with. Strategies of care may include establishing ground rules and providing opportunities for community building and private spaces (Kalir, 2020).

How get started with social annotation

Social annotation can be easily implemented in any subject. If you are unsure of where to start, log a Support request with Learning Environments. You may also wish to attend or view pre-recorded professional development workshops. Recorded webinars for training on tools such as Perusall and FeedbackFruits are available. For more ideas on how to implement social annotation, refer to the resources below.

When deciding which tool to choose, it may be worth considering that Feedback Fruits interactive document offers similar functionality to Perusall, and can be used for both assessment or informal activities. Feedback Fruits also supports multiple choice questions that are automatically marked, and open response questions that are student marked. A further advantage is that it can support a number of other collaborative tools and activities for peer review, group evaluation and reflection using the same user-friendly interface and format, as well as support for a range of media and web links which can allow analysis and review of a range of media types and artefacts. For example, Jayson Cooper from Melbourne Graduate School of Education has used this functionality to support students in analysing websites and multimodal resources, and for encouraging students to provide peer feedback on reflective blogs/journals and ePortfolios as part of assessment.

Further reading

  • Brown, M and Croft, B. 2020. Social Annotation and an Inclusive Praxis for Open Pedagogy in the College Classroom. Journal of Interactive Media in Education, 2020 (1):8, pp.1–8. DOI:
  • Zarzour, H. & Sellami, M. (2017). A linked data-based collaborative annotation system for increasing learning achievements. Educational Technology Research & Development, 65(2), 381-397.
  • Dean, J. 25 August 2015. Back to school with annotation: 10 ways to annotate with students [web log]. Available at
  • Gao, F. (2013) A case study of using a social annotation tool to support collaboratively learning. Internet and Higher Education, 17 (2013) 76-83.
  • Hartman, HJ. 2001. Developing students’ metacognitive knowledge and skills. In: Hartman, HJ (ed.), Metacognition in Learning and Instruction. Netherlands: Springer. pp. 33–68. DOI:
  • Fleerackers, A., Alperin, J. P., Morales, E., & Kalir, R. (2019). Comment, reply, repeat: Engaging students with social annotation. Retrieved from
  • Fish, S. (1980). Is There a Text in this Class? Cambridge: Harvard University Press.
  • Howard, J. (2012). With ‘social reading,’ books become places to meet. The Chronicle of Higher Education. Retrieved from
  • Kalir & Garcia (2019)
  • Kalir, J. 2020 “Annotation is first draft thinking”: Educators’ marginal notes as brave writing. English Journal, 110.2 (2020), 62-68.
  • Marshall (1997)
  • Novak, E., Razzouk, R., Johnson, T. (2011). The educational use of social annotation tools in higher education: A literature review. Internet and Higher Education, 14(2012), 39-49
  • (Pena-Shaff & Nicholls, 2004).
  • Schacht (2015)
  • Sun, Y. & Fei Gao. (2017). Comparing the use of social annotation tool and a threaded discussion forum to support online discussions. The Internet and Higher Education, 32, 72-79.
  • Sprouse, M. (2018). Social Annotation and Layered Readings in Composition. In Chen Chen, Kristopher Purzycki, and Lydia Wilkes (Eds.), Proceedings of the Annual Computers and Writing Conference (pp. 39-52). Fort Collins, Colorado: The WAC Clearinghouse.
  • Tian, J. 2019. Investigating student’s use of a social annotation tool in an English for Science and Technology course. Emerging Technologies for Education, 4th International Symposium, SETE 2019, Revised selected papers.
  • Wranovix, M. & Isbell, M. (2020). The digital common read: Creating a space for authentic engagement with social annotation. Journal of the European Honors Council 2020, Vol 4(1).