Enhancing Student Engagement with Course Materials through Digital Social Reading

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

Over a decade of research about social annotation in higher education demonstrates that students who share digital comments with peers construct new knowledge, engage diverse viewpoints, and build vibrant learning communities. When practiced with care, social annotation sparks productive social reading (Cohn and Kalir, 2022).

The digital social reading platform I used was Perusall. Other popular and free platforms include NowComment and Hypothesis. Their key features include “threaded commenting alongside the sentences and paragraphs of texts, the areas of images, and timestamps of videos to create engaging online conversations literally in context” (https://nowcomment.com). In addition, both Hypothesis and Perusall can be integrated with the Learning Management Systems (LMS), such as Canvas. Students enrolled in a course can access the platform via LMS and do not need to create their own accounts to use it.

Benefits of DSR

DSR is well received by students as a tool to study reading assignments for class. Asynchronous social reading helps students form a reading community, which “turns coursework into a social experience, making learning more fun and engaging while simultaneously helping students think critically and develop a deeper understanding of the material,” and such “social connections intrinsically motivate students to participate in the assignment and with their classmates” (https://www.perusall.com). Students of different abilities can take time outside of class to explore the text and process both the concepts and content. For example, students can ask questions if they do not understand something, they can look up questions online, and they can receive input from their peers.

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

As an instructor, I found that students were better prepared for discussions in class when using DSR asynchronously. Before we adopted DSR, our assignments were on paper. Usually at least 20% of the students did not do the required reading before coming to class. This created a challenge for those students who had studied and for me, the instructor, who had to adjust the lesson plan at the last minute.

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

Things to consider when choosing a DSR platform

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

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

Week 1: Introduction to DSR:

  • Do a quick survey about your students’ familiarity with the platform you are going to use.  Decide how much time you want to dedicate to walk your students through the various steps of annotating in the margins of the digital text. Hypothesis, NewComment, and Perusall have detailed instructions, including the setup, guides, and creating/uploading assignments. They also have tutorial videos on their websites. Tutorial videos on Hypothesis and Perusall are also available on Youtube.
  • Convey your expectations via unit or lesson objectives and course goals. You may use “can-do” statements, such as “I can provide thoughtful and detailed comments;” “I can develop high-order thinking skills by analyzing a concept or a statement and connect it with real-life examples.”
  • Show students some samples so that they know what to do and what not to do. For instance, when responding to peers’ comments, they cannot just write, “I agree” or “I disagree.” They should give their reasons. If they do not agree with somebody’s viewpoint, they should do so respectfully.
  • Separate the class into smaller groups of no more than five, otherwise comments in the margins will become too crowded to follow.
  • (Recommended) Use formative assessment to evaluate 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 a rubric and go over it in class. Invite student feedback on the rubric if needed.
    • 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 the first reading assignment on the social reading platform.
  • Scaffold as needed. For example, you demonstrate by asking questions (what, how, why…), writing comments, and citing online sources if needed.
  • Provide both positive and corrective feedback in class so that students know your expectations. Choose some comments and questions posted by the students and go over them in class.
  • Refer to the rubric if you have one.

Week 3 and after:

As you check students’ annotations on an assigned text, take notes so that you can prepare your in-class presentation and organize the in-person discussion around the common muddy points and to enhance student engagement with the material. 

  • Focus on areas that are key to the understanding of the text.
  • For in-class discussions, start with small groups of three or four students, which will give each student time to share their thoughts. Have each group appoint a representative to debrief the class.
    • Note: Small groups allow those students who do not feel comfortable speaking in front of the class to speak up and get prepared to debrief the whole class later if they are assigned the role.
  • To promote student engagement, higher-order thinking and meaningful discussion are key. You may encourage your students to back up their statements as they annotate and analyze the text by citing from the reading and other sources as well as by connecting the text to real-life examples and/or experiences.

Studies from various disciplines have confirmed the benefits of DSR on college students’ motivation, participation, and initiatives (Cohn & Kalir, 2022; Pianzola, 2021; Thoms & Poole, 2018). DSR helps them build a social reading community. Its collaborative nature makes reading enjoyable and the students more inquisitive, thus enhancing their engagement with the course materials.

Hong Jiang is a professor of instruction at Northwestern University, where she teaches Mandarin Chinese.


Cohn, Jenae and Kalir, Remi. Why We Need a Socially Responsible Approach to ‘social Reading’? The Hechinger Report April 11, 2022. https://hechingerreport.org/opinion-why-we-need-a-socially-responsible-approach-to-social-reading/

NowComment. https://nowcomment.com/

Perusall. https://www.perusall.com/

Pianzola, Federico. Digital Social Reading: Sharing Fiction in the 21st Century, 2021. https://wip.mitpress.mit.edu/digital-social-reading

Thoms, Joshua and Poole, Frederick. Investigating Linguistic, Literary, and Social Affordances of L2 Social Collaborative Reading. Language Learning and Technology, 21 (2), 139-156, 2017. https://www.researchgate.net/publication/317804478_Investigating_linguistic_literary_and_social_affordances_of_L2_collaborative_reading

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