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How do I get students to engage with course readings?

Co-authors: Helle-Mai Lenk, Emiri Oda, Diane Maratta

This post, co-authored by McGill instructor Helle-Mai Lenk, her former student Emiri Oda, and Diane Maratta, a Learning Technology Consultant with McGill’s Teaching and Learning Services, describes the implementation of Perusall, a tool for engaging students with course readings by having them do online, asynchronous annotations in context to which peers can respond.

Helle-Mai: When asked what they find particularly challenging about their first year at McGill, the students in my McGill Writing Centre (MWC) courses inevitably mention the amount of reading. They feel overwhelmed by not only the volume but also the complexity of academic discourse. They look up unfamiliar vocabulary, pick apart complex sentence structures, and highlight what they consider key points, but it’s a long and arduous process. Often they’re bored; sometimes they get lost. In the courses I teach at the MWC, I aim to help students develop more effective strategies for reading academic texts, such as providing an active reading environment. I feel that an active reading environment improves engagement and comprehension. But how to tackle this challenge of not only getting students to read, but also to engage with the course readings? I sought help from Teaching and Learning Services (TLS).

Diane: During class time, many instructors use teaching strategies, such as inquiry and discussion, to engage students with course materials. However instructors are often uncertain about what strategies to use outside of class time. Common questions resurface, such as “How can I get students to generate and share knowledge outside of class?” or “How can I get students to engage with the content?” So, I often meet with instructors to guide them through the process of selecting and implementing online strategies that engage students outside of class time. Helle-Mai came to TLS searching for such a strategy: to have students actively engage with course readings. I suggested Perusall. Perusall is a collaborative annotation tool which allows students to read and mark up texts interactively online in small groups. Pedagogically, the tool has the potential to add value to students’ learning. It can enhance critical inquiry and foster social learning, and it offers the potential for debating perspectives and interpretations.

Since my role as a learning technology consultant involves guiding instructors with the choice of effective educational technologies, as well as implementing them effectively, I have to ensure that the technology does what it claims to do as a piece of software, and pedagogically, as a teaching or learning tool. At TLS, we tested Perusall to determine the learning curve required to use it both for instructors and students, the assessment value of the tool, and the potential for social learning. Such testing allows us to have an informed conversation with the instructor about the best way to implement the tool. Prior to implementation, Helle-Mai and I had some additional conversations about the way she would use the tool with her students, such as the size of the student groupings in Perusall.


Helle-Mai: In Fall 2016, I piloted a collaborative assignment with Perusall in one of my academic writing courses for students whose first language is not English. Academic English 2 (CESL 300) usually attracts students who are in their first semester. One of the assignments in this course is a 750-word problem-solution essay where the problem to be addressed is plagiarism. As sources for this essay, students are restricted to a list of ten readings on this topic, both scholarly and lay, from which they must cite a minimum of five. At least two of the sources cited must be scholarly articles on the list. For many students, this is their first exposure to peer-reviewed academic articles. Although we prepare for reading by examining the structure of scholarly texts and going over some pre-reading strategies, the actual reading of a specific scholarly article is done online using Perusall. Since the article chosen is one of the readings on the list, the students are motivated to read it because it will help them complete the essay assignment. Also, as plagiarism is a problem that engages the students personally, they’re interested in the subject matter. Finally, since they’ve already had an in-class discussion about the problem of plagiarism, they’re interested in comparing the solutions they came up with to the ones proposed in the reading by two university professors.

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Intentionally, I kept the instructions for the collaborative annotation assignment broad and inviting.

“For this assignment, you will annotate a text (Teh & Paull, 2013) collaboratively with two of your peers. The purpose of collaborative annotation is to promote critical reading and to stimulate discussion about the topic of Essay 2.

Today I will send you an access code. Log on to Perusall.com using Facebook, Google or Twitter. Enter the access code. Open the document and begin to mark up the text with marginal notes.

You can argue with the text, raise questions, make connections to other readings, evaluate it, extrapolate from it, ask for help if it is difficult to understand, assess its relevance to the essay topic,connect it to personal experience,express excitement at discovering new or surprising ideas, or any other reaction.

In order to get 3 marks, your annotations should be more or less evenly distributed throughout the text and the time period. They should include new comments and questions as well as replies and comments to existing threads.

The annotation period will close on Thur. Oct. 20 at 9 pm.”

My goal was for students to read the entire 16-page article, engage with the content and develop knowledge by sharing ideas. I think I succeeded. Over the three-day period students had to do the assignment, all 24 students in my class participated and the academic article was marked up with almost 600 comments! Many of these comments illustrated insightful thinking and the comment threads suggested that students’ ideas were evolving as a result of peers’ comments.

Example annotations on Perusall site (https://perusall.com/downloads/scoring-examples.pdf)

Emiri: Perusall definitely supported my learning as I could share the readings collaboratively and annotate documents with ease. My peers and I could share opinions, discuss, and ask questions with one another. As the users can express their opinions and thoughts about whatever topics that intrigued them, I discovered new viewpoints and problems from others. Furthermore, the discussions I had with my classmates taught me some different approaches to controversial issues which brought new perspectives and solutions to our mind. Also, asking and answering questions about the reading helped our learning and deepened our understandings of the materials in the document.

Perusall5InterfaceEven though it was my first time using Perusall, I found it rather user-friendly. Firstly, logging into the software by Google, Facebook, or Twitter is highly convenient. Secondly, adding comments on the document is fairly easy. The users only have to select the sentences to which they want to comment and then a comment box automatically appears. It was never difficult to keep up with new comments since Perusall gives notifications. Lastly, the design of the software is very simple. On the reading screen, there are only a few function buttons beside the document which are easy to use and never bother the users reading it.

With Perusall, I can add underlines and take personal notes on the document on screen. It reduces the time and cost to use printers, so it’s environment-friendly. If more courses used Perusall, I would be able to keep all my assigned readings online; this would make it easier for me to revisit the readings and my notes whenever I want. In addition, the auto-save function of the software prevents me from losing all the study notes and highlights I took due to sudden system errors. Overall, Perusall has enabled me to learn more efficiently with my peers and I would like to keep on using such an easy-to-use learning platform.

Diane: If you’re a McGill instructor interested in engaging your students in their learning outside of class time, take a look at this Educational Technology Ecosystem for inspiration. Thinking of adopting a new educational technology? Use the Technology Implementation Plan (TIP), a thinking guide for implementing new educational technology in your class. For additional guidance on implementing educational technologies, request a consultation with a learning technology consultant at TLS. Finally, check out other strategies for getting students to engage with course readings on TLS’ How do I …? page.


Teh, E. C., & Paull, M. (2013). Reducing the prevalence of plagiarism: A model for staff, students and universities. Issues in Educational Research 23(2). Retrieved from http://www.iier.org.au/iier23/teh.pdf

How do you engage your students with course readings?

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Associate Director, Faculty and Teaching Development, and Senior Academic Associate, at McGill's Teaching and Learning Services; former Senior Faculty Lecturer at the McGill Writing Centre; area of specialization: Second Language Education; loves teaching and learning!

(Photo credit: Owen Egan)

Associate Director, Faculty and Teaching Development, and Senior Academic Associate, at McGill's Teaching and Learning Services; former Senior Faculty Lecturer at the McGill Writing Centre; area of specialization: Second Language Education; loves teaching and learning! (Photo credit: Owen Egan)

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