Enhancing Student Engagement with Course Materials through Digital Social Reading

Since the spring of 2020 when the pandemic hit the United States, I have been using digital social reading technology for asynchronous reading tasks in advanced Chinese language classes. Through this, students read and comment on digital texts as well as conduct dialogues in small groups. This approach, called Digital Social Reading (DSR) or Digital Social Annotation, effectively prepares my students for a new lesson or unit. This observation is supported by the authors of an opinion piece in the Hechinger Report published in April 2022.

More than a decade of research on social annotation in higher education shows that students who share digital annotation with their peers build new knowledge, share diverse perspectives, and build vibrant learning communities. When carefully practiced, social annotations stimulate fruitful social reading (Cohn and Kalir, 2022).

The digital social reading platform I used was Perusall. Other popular and free platforms include NowComment and Hypothesis. Its main features include “threaded commentary along with sentences and paragraphs of text, image fields, and video timestamps to create interactive online conversations literally in context” (https://nowcomment.com). In addition, both Hypothesis and Perusall can be integrated with Learning Management Systems (LMS), such as Canvas. Students enrolled in the course can access the platform via LMS and do not need to create their own account to use it.

DSR فوائد Benefits

The DSR is well received by students as a tool for studying reading assignments for the class. Asynchronous social reading helps students form a reading community, which “turns coursework into a social experience, making learning more enjoyable and engaging while at the same time helping students think critically and develop a deeper understanding of the material,” and these “social connections intrinsically motivate students to Participate in the assignment and with classmates” (https://www.perusall.com). Students of different abilities can spend time outside of class exploring the text and addressing both concepts and content. For example, students can ask questions if they do not understand something What, and they can search for questions online, and they can receive input from colleagues.

With Perusall, students reported that they enjoyed reading with social annotations because they could read at their own pace, study the text, and get feedback from their peers. One thing they particularly liked was having conversations about the text, which allowed them to see the different thought processes and perspectives of their peers and inspired them to think more critically about the passage.

As a teacher, I found that students were better prepared for discussions in class when DSR was used asynchronously. Before our DSR approval, our missions were on paper. Usually at least 20% of students have not done the required reading before coming to class. This created a challenge for those students who studied, and for me, the instructor, who had to adjust the lesson plan at the last minute.

Another benefit of the DSR is that the students’ annotations allowed me to gauge their understanding: what they understood and what they were still confused about. I can then focus the instructions on the main content and structures of the text and avoid wasting time with what they already understand.

Things to consider when choosing a DSR platform

First, choose the platform you want. You can check out Hypothesis and Perusall, which are widely used in universities and can be combined with basic LMS providers. Edtech’s online reviews may also help you decide which platform works best for your course. Second, allow plenty of time to plan ahead if you’re using a DSR the first time (see below for more details). The good news is that you can get help from IT support from the above companies. The IT at your university should also be able to help.

Here is a sample of things to keep in mind when implementing a DSR

Week 1: Introduction to DSR:

  • Do a quick survey on your students’ knowledge of the platform you will be using. Decide how much time you want to dedicate to guiding your students through the different steps of the annotation in the margins of the digital text. The new hypothesis and commentary and Perusall contain detailed instructions, including setup, guides, and creating/uploading assignments. They also have educational videos on their websites. Instructional videos about Hypothesis and Perusall are also available on Youtube.
  • Communicate your expectations through unit or lesson objectives and course objectives. You can use “can-do” statements, such as “I can provide thoughtful, detailed feedback;” “I can develop high-level thinking skills by analyzing a concept or statement and relating it to real-life examples.”
  • Show the students some samples so they know what they should and shouldn’t do. For example, when responding to colleagues’ comments, they can not just write “agree” or “disagree”. They must give their reasons. If they don’t agree with someone’s point of view, they should respectfully do so.
  • Divide the class into smaller groups of no more than five, otherwise the comments in the margins will become too crowded to follow.
  • (recommended) Use formative assessment to assess student participation and contribution and to provide timely feedback. For example, does the student start early or wait until the last minute to post comments? How is the quality of their comments? How many comments does the student make? Create an assessment form and view it in class. Invite students for their feedback on the rubric if necessary.
    • Note: By making the annotation part of the course evaluation, we encourage active participation, collaboration, in-depth reading, and critical thinking.

Week 2: Starting the DSR:

  • Start your first reading task on the social reading platform.
  • Scaffold as needed. For example, you can demonstrate this by asking questions (what, how, why…), writing comments, and citing online sources if necessary.
  • Provide positive, corrective feedback in class so students know your expectations. Choose some of the comments and questions posted by the students and review them in class.
  • Refer to the evaluation form if you have one.

Third week and beyond:

As you review students’ annotations on a particular text, take notes so you can prepare the presentation in class, organize personal discussion around common muddy points, and to foster student engagement with the material.

  • Focus on the areas essential to understanding the text.
  • For in-class discussions, start with small groups of three or four students, which will give each student time to share their ideas. Ask each group to designate their representative to debrief the class.
    • Note: Small groups allow students who are not comfortable speaking in front of the class to speak and be prepared to debrief the whole class later if they are assigned the role.
  • To enhance student participation, higher-order thinking and meaningful discussion are essential. You can encourage your students to back up their statements while they comment and analyze the text by citing from reading and other sources as well as by linking the text with real-life examples and/or experiences.

Studies from across disciplines have confirmed the benefits of DSR on college student motivation, participation, and initiative (Cohn & Kalir, 2022; Pianzola, 2021; Thoms & Poole, 2018). DSR helps them build a social reading community. Its collaborative nature makes reading enjoyable and students more curious, thus enhancing their participation in the course material.

Hong Jiang is a teaching professor at Northwestern University where she teaches Mandarin Chinese.


Cohn, Jenny, Claire, and Remy. Why do we need a socially responsible approach to ‘social reading’? Hechinger Report 11 April 2022. https://hechingerreport.org/opinion-why-we-need-a-socially-responsible-approach-to-social-reading/

Now comment. https://nowcomment.com/

Perosal. https://www.perusall.com/

Pianzola, Federico. Digital Social Reading: Sharing Imagination in the Twenty-first Century, 2021. https://wip.mitpress.mit.edu/digital-social-reading

Toms, Joshua and Paul, Frederick. An investigation of the linguistic, literary, and social consequences of collaborative social L2 reading. Learning Language and Technology, 21(2), 139-156, Available here. 2017. https://www.researchgate.net/publication/317804478_Investigating_linguistic_literary_and_social_affordances_of_L2_collaborative_reading

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