SIP 12.7 Digital Social Annotation

Thirsty for a Strong Instructional Practice?

Student sitting in the grass while working on a laptop.Do you struggle with making readings come alive and be relevant to students’ lives and future professional communities?

Do you hear that required readings are overwhelming, too dense and/or difficult to understand?

Do you wonder if your students complete their required readings?

Do you wish your students could contribute to and be heard by their disciplines and larger communities?

Are you tired of the traditional discussion-board questions, posts and replies?

Are you looking for effective online teaching activities that promote critical thinking?

Well, if you have asked these questions, the practice of social digital annotation may be just what you are looking for.

Take a SIP of this:

Social annotation is the practice of adding to existing text by writing in the margins and on the text, highlighting words and phrases, drawing and doodling, correcting misinformation and much more. Annotation has been practiced since the creation of written communication. The use of social annotation as a teaching tool in higher education has been shown to improve reading comprehension and critical thinking (Johnson, Archibald, & Tenenbaum, 2010); increase collaborative learning; engage faculty (Jones & Dexter, 2014), introduce digital literacy and support research and peer review (Johnson, Archibald, & Tenenbaum, 2010; Novak, Razzouk, & Johnson, 2012; Su, Yang, Hwang, & Zhang, 2010). In addition to these beneficial outcomes, social annotation contributes student voice to the larger canon of knowledge, science, social movements and policy debates. Social annotation is used across disciplines and teaching modalities (e.g., online, face to face and hybrid).

More recently, digital annotation or open web annotation applications have provided the “margins” for annotation to continue in digital formats. These applications encourage annotation of not only written text and journal articles but websites, blogs, news media, art and active research. Digital-annotation applications open our current mode of knowledge dissemination and communication, allowing diverse communities to add their layers of information and lived experience without disturbing the original contribution but forever changing the larger body of knowledge and understanding. When participating in digital social annotation with a class, you as the instructor have a window into what your students are thinking; students can directly answer one another’s questions; they can see widely diverse perspectives; and they can contribute their expertise to the larger conversation. The annotations are no longer contained to a single book from a single library.

There are many digital-annotation tools available for use, including (, NowCommentDiigo and Perusall., a digital-annotation tool specifically created for annotating privately and publicly, is highlighted in this SIP because of its high quality, ease of use, accessibility and current availability in Canvas. is available in Canvas under assignments as an external tool and ready for your immediate use.

You can also use outside of Canvas to annotate with book groups, students, professionals and the public. You can annotate books, readings, policy briefs, research and websites with your students, authors, politicians, researchers and/or community members using a free web extension from The benefit of using annotation outside of Canvas is that you can invite people with firsthand experience or expertise in the subject you are studying, connecting your students to their larger, even global community. The annotation program works with any public URLs and readable Google Docs; just make sure to follow any copyright laws in the reproduction of materials.

How can you use digital annotation in your class?

  1. Use digital annotation in your face-to-face classes for all required readings as a just-in-time teaching practice. This way, students come prepared and you know what they are thinking about or questioning to help inform your lecture.
  2. Replace a discussion board for your online class with a social-digital-annotation reading activity, eliminating busywork and promoting critical reading.
  3. Have students annotate the course syllabus in the first week of class to clarify assignments, required readings and schedules and to contribute their voice to the class. This also can be used to introduce the tool in a low-stakes way.
  4. Create a social-annotation reading where you prepopulate the reading/text with comments and questions for students, helping to highlight important sections, providing definitions and deeper understanding, and fostering deep reading.
  5. Encourage critical thinking by having students annotate with contradicting or supportive research and viewpoints through active web links.
  6. Create a reading community with local politicians and students where they can read and annotate together, creating civic engagement.

Still thirsty? Take another SIP of this:

  • 10 Ways to Annotate with Students. This is a list of annotation applications for the classroom provided by
  • Billy Collins reciting his poem “Marginalia”. This is a wonderful poem about the age-old practice of writing in the margins and reading others’ contributions years later.
  • Kalir, J., & Garcia, A. (2020). Annotation. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.
  • Literacy, Equity + Remarkable Notes = LEARN: a collaborative project of the National Writing Project, the National Council of Teachers of English and Marginal Syllabus that invites K-12 and postsecondary educators to a year of social reading, collaborative web annotation and public conversation.


Johnson, T.E., Archibald, T.N., & Tenenbaum, G. (2010). Individual and team annotation effects on students’ reading comprehension, critical thinking and metacognitive skills. Computers in Human Behavior, 26(6), 1496-1507.

Jones, W.M., & Dexter, S. (2014). How teachers learn: The roles of formal, informal, and independent learning. Educational Technology Research and Development, 62(3), 367-384.

Novak, E., Razzouk, R., & Johnson, T.E. (2012). The educational use of social annotation tools in higher education: A literature review. The Internet and Higher Education, 15(1), 39-49.

Su, A.Y.S., Yang, S.J.H., Hwang, W., & Zhang, J. (2010). A web 2.0-based collaborative annotation system for enhancing knowledge-sharing in collaborative learning environments. Computers & Education, 55(2), 752-766.

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