6: Annotation Aids Learning
School has conditioned me to highlight/annotate any book I read if I want to understand it.
—@CarolynneMeyers, tweet, July 29, 2018
When Mortimer Adler advocated, in 1940, for students to actively read and write inside their books, he declared: “Understanding is a two-way operation; learning doesn’t consist in being an empty receptacle. The learner has to question himself and question the teacher. He even has to argue with the teacher, once he understands what the teacher is saying. And marking a book is literally an expression of your differences, or agreements of opinion, with the author.”1
Adler then recommended that students employ a number of annotation “devices” to aid their learning. These annotation strategies included: underlining words; drawing vertical lines, stars, and other “doo-dad” in the margins; numbering key ideas and also writing page numbers for the purpose of cross-referencing; circling words and phrases; and writing all manner of questions and thoughts among the book’s margins, headers, footers, and end-pages.
Echoing Adler some 75 years later, educators Jeremy Dean and Katherine Schulten recently created a resource for The New York Times’ teaching and learning network in which they detail how digital annotation can help students “wrestle with” and react to a text, add contextual information to enrich their background knowledge, develop argumentative reasoning, establish new connections, and hone research skills when annotating primary sources.2
For decades, interdisciplinary research has affirmed that annotation - whether written by hand or typed via digital device - is an important aid to thinking, reading, and writing.3 And for learners like @CarolynneMeyers, the student whose tweet about annotation and understanding opened this chapter, we need only to peruse social media for anecdotal evidence that annotation is tightly coupled with everyday learning practices. A search of Pinterest, Instagram, and Twitter for the term “annotation” reveals students across the globe, in many languages, from different grades, and from diverse disciplines commenting about the utility of annotation, or complaining about their homework, or photographing their marginalia, markers, and books.
So, too, are educators eager and regular practitioners of annotation. In Chapter 1, we shared a 1991 essay from the eminent philosopher Jacques Derrida when introducing the idea that annotation is intertextual. Yet 40 years before the publication of that essay, Derrida was a student. And, according to one of Derrida’s teachers, his writing was “quite incomprehensible.”4
In 1951, while preparing for his university entrance exams, Derrida wrote an essay about Shakespeare upon which his teacher commented with red pen (but of course): “In this essay you seem to be constantly on the verge of something interesting but, somewhat, you always fail to explain it clearly.” Given the complexity of Derrida’s scholarship, one wonders whether his teacher’s annotation aided his learning. Nevertheless, evidence overwhelmingly suggests that educators’ written feedback to students does aid learning, whether with young children learning another language5 or with medical students learning professional practices.6
Our previous discussions about annotation have already featured a few examples of annotation supporting certain types of learning. Recall that in Chapter 2, when we surveyed labeling as a type of annotation that provides information, we briefly discussed machine learning or the process by which AI systems are trained using labeled data to identify patterns, infer relationships, and perhaps also annotate similar data with greater speed and accuracy. In Chapter 3, we detailed how the Hebrew Talmud has featured annotation for centuries in order to share commentary and support study; the name “Talmud” can be translated as “the teaching.” As for annotation sparking conversation, many of the examples shared in Chapter 4 related to learning; Frankenbook makes expert opinion openly accessible and encourages shared literary exploration, whereas open approaches to peer review help authors to learn about the limitations of their scholarship from many readers. And we might also argue that as members of the public walk by and read Alexandra Bell’s annotation counternarratives, discussed in Chapter 5, they become aware of - and learn about - media bias and racial injustice.
This chapter is about the relationship between annotation and learning. In particular, we are interested in how annotation aids learning. But how so? Under what conditions? And for whom - an individual student like @CarolynneMeyers or Jacques Derrida, a group of students, or an algorithm? After all, Harry Potter wouldn’t have completed his Potions course were it not for an annotated version of the Advanced Potion-Making textbook.7
Before we discuss how annotation aids student learning, and before we discuss some promising annotation-powered projects in the field of education, it’s necessary that we talk a bit about learning.
Discussing Annotation and Learning
As we discuss how annotation aids learning, we recognize that this particular activity - like reading, and like other forms of literacy and communication - does not occur in a vacuum. Annotation is quite literally situated in texts and contexts. That’s been true whether annotation was authored in the medieval scriptorium, the one-room schoolhouse, or through social media. Like reading, annotation is also an activity supported by and connected to multiple tools, like books, pens, and digital devices. Both reading and annotating can aid learning, though both activities often do so in coordination with a repertoire of other practices, like writing, and memorization, and conversation.
A few caveats about this chapter and our discussion of learning. We’re education researchers and former K-12 classroom teachers who, now, study learning and educate both future and current teachers. While we both incorporate and value annotation practices and technologies in our own courses and with our own students, the purpose of this chapter isn’t to convince you of some magical panacea. Education researchers have studied annotation for decades and have found some strategies, technologies, and arrangements to be effective. Yet what works in one classroom, or for us, might not necessarily work for you.
In this respect, we do not presume a causal relationship between annotation and learning. Annotation does not invariably or always lead to better, more meaningful, or more engaged learning. Recent research, for example, found that there was no significant relationship between college students who highlighted portions of an open access biology textbook and their quiz performance.8 Rather, we recognize that annotation can aid learning when it is complementary to other activities under certain circumstances.
Furthermore, we don’t intend to review every single study, promising insight, bit of data, or contrary evidence relevant to the complex relationship between annotation and learning. This chapter isn’t a formal literature review or tool survey. Nonetheless, we do include references to considerable research and recommended readings, and - especially if you are an educator or a student - we hope you find this a useful introduction.9
What’s Learning? An Example
Whether inside or outside of school, whether from a teacher or religious leader, and whether with your family or peers, we’ve all learned stuff because we’ve all participated in activities that can be described as learning. Rather than write abstractly about a complicated concept, this brief explanation of what we mean by learning is grounded in the very thing you’re doing right now - reading. We’ll use the example of learning how to read in order to illustrate some of the broader concepts and complexities that will help us discuss annotation and learning throughout this chapter.
In one respect, learning to read requires that an individual practice and develop new abilities. Skills like letter recognition, phonemic awareness, sentence construction, and other reading comprehension strategies are developed over time and occur as the result of changing neural processes. As a child learns to read, their brain quite literally changes as language capabilities mature.10 From this perspective, learning to read is both an individual and a cognitive accomplishment. For some educators and researchers, learning is most appropriately understood as something associated with the individual student and their fluency. There’s something happening inside that learner’s head, mixed together with personal traits like curiosity and motivation, and - voila - the student learns to read.
Alternatively, learning to read also requires that people participate in shared activities. Perhaps a family member reads with a child before bedtime. Perhaps learning to read is encouraged by members of a religious community who study scripture together. Or perhaps an adult can read yet is unfamiliar with specialist language and literature; to gain membership in a community, whether a scientific laboratory or a trade profession, that individual must develop new literacies in order to comprehend and meaningfully use shared texts. From this perspective, learning to read is both a social and a cultural practice. For other educators and researchers, learning is most appropriately understood as collective activity that is situated in social contexts. There’s something happening among people, mixed together with ritual and routine, and - voila - learners become participants in a group’s literacy practices.
Though we have necessarily simplified some important concepts, our brief example of learning to read has introduced key ideas about learning that are woven throughout this chapter. In some cases, we’re interested in the ways that annotation can aid learning for the individual. In other instances, we’re interested in how annotation can aid learning for groups. Research shows that annotation can support individual reading comprehension, as well as the recall and retention of information.11 Research also shows how annotation can support group collaboration, shared meaning-making, and the social production of new knowledge.12
Learning is complex to do, and learning is complex to understand. It is necessary that we appreciate diverse people and practices, multiple purposes and scales of activity, and various tools, texts, and contexts if we are to make sense of the many ways in which notes added to texts aid learning.
How Annotation Aids Student Learning
If Adler’s 1940 essay and stacks of used textbooks are any indication, we can assume that students - across grade levels and disciplines - have authored handwritten annotation for many, many years. In 1997, Catherine Marshall, now a principal researcher at Microsoft Research, studied students’ handwritten annotation by camping out in the basement bookstore of a major university. Over the course of a few days she examined over 150 used texts.13 According to her analysis, annotation appears to have served a variety of purposes for students: procedural signaling, such as indicating importance; placemarking; problem-working, as with mathematical and scientific questions; interpretation; tracing progress; and incidental markings (like coffee stains). But what do we know about student learning when marking up books in this way?
Reviews of research suggest that a student annotating a text by hand, pencil-to-paper, can clarify their conceptual comprehensive and develop active reading skills.14 A 2008 study of freshman and sophomores at a large, urban, American high school found that annotation - described by the authors as a cognitive literacy strategy - did help students to better analyze ideas, communicate, and strengthen their scientific vocabulary and discipline-specific conceptual understandings.15 Yet students’ handwritten annotation is often idiosyncratic and educators may not understand how to intentionally and systematically promote annotation as a cognitive strategy. Given technological advances and a trend to promote digital annotation by students in school, empirical findings are mixed regarding the evidence-based benefits of handwritten annotation for learning.
There is, however, much stronger evidence linking digital annotation with students’ learning processes and outcomes. Digital annotation is often social, meaning that students can access, read, comment upon, and otherwise work with annotation authored by their peers. In both K-12 and higher education classrooms, the social and collaborative affordances of digital annotation have been found to aid reading strategies and comprehension,16 benefit language learning,17 and support peer review and critique.18 Such collaborative approaches to annotation help develop students’ cognitive and metacognitive abilities,19 and can also motivate their learning.20 Students appear to like digital annotation, too, with some students reporting a generally favorable view of their annotation activities.21 A recent review of 16 studies across seven different higher education disciplines found that student reading comprehension, peer review, motivation, and attitudes toward technology use were all positively influenced by social and collaborative annotation.22
In some cases, digital annotation is used in lieu of other forms of online written communication like student contributions to a learning manage system (LMS) discussion forum. Some researchers have referred to this type of learning arrangement as anchored discussion.23 When students “talk” with one another about a shared text through digital annotation, evidence suggests annotation affords richer conversation as students pay closer attention to the text, establish more proximal connections between their discussion and the source material, and embrace opportunities to elaborate their ideas, clarify, and learn from the viewpoints of their peers.24 Anchored and social annotation can help “students highlight and discuss important issues in the reading, share different opinions and learn from others’ perspectives.”25 Students who author digital annotation as an alternative to discussion forum posts engage with texts as authentic discursive contexts and consequently participate in knowledge construction practices that include interpretation, questioning, and consensus-building.26 As LMS use and discussion forums become a tacit feature of K-12 and higher education learning environments, it is worth mentioning that annotation in an “unLMS” arrangement - that is, guiding student collaboration among public, private, and open discourses spaces - can be “useful for community building [and] collaborative sensemaking of challenging readings.”27
Were you to dig deeper into the studies that anchor our brief description of how both handwritten and digital annotation can aid student learning, you would likely notice some patterns about teaching and technology. Yes, Marshall’s seminal study does indicate that students annotate their textbooks for various purposes; that is, students might just annotate books because they think it aids their learning, whether or not their teachers encourage them to do so, in any particular way, and for any particular reason. Be that as it may, the educators in these studies have not encouraged student annotation as incidental or arbitrary. Rather, educators have intentionally selected texts and tools for annotation, with student annotation often framed in service of broader goals - like learning a language or providing peer feedback.
Take college professors like Robin DeRosa, Timothy Robbins, and John O’Brien who have each integrated Hypothesis annotation into their university literature courses to support student use of open textbooks and guide collaborative reading practices.28 Or Michelle Sprouse, whose use of annotation in a college composition course has helped students to “layer” multiple reading lenses atop their texts.29 Or Nathaniel Rivers and Craig Whippo, who have each created popular resources to guide and assess university students’ collaborative annotation in, respectively, English and science courses.30 Or Paul Allison, who administers the online annotation platform Now Comment that is popular among some K-12 educators and their students.31 Or MIT’s Hyperstudio group that created the open-source Annotation Studio and has partnered with professors to support university students’ learning in literature courses.32
This leads us to consider design. When educators and their colleagues - including researchers and technologists - work together and create new learning environments and new learning opportunities, annotation may play a central role. In some instances, the design of novel technologies and collaborative practices can explicitly encourage - and may be explicitly enabled by - annotation. We next consider how annotation contributes to the design of learning. And to focus our discussion, we’ll examine science education.
Annotation and Science Education
How have annotation technologies and practices aided the design of science education? It can be challenging for students to read primary sources, understand discipline-specific content, and comprehend the concepts and methods of a domain. Furthermore, it is necessary that students not only memorize content knowledge but learn to engage deeply with disciplinary practices. In response to these challenges, the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) has, over the past few years, advanced a project “designed to help pre-college and college students understand how science moves forward as a structured way of revealing the laws of nature.”33 And the initiative is powered by annotation.
Science in the Classroom (SitC) is a AAAS project that aims to demystify the nature of science, promote scientific communication, and support STEM education efforts.34 SiTC relies upon volunteer graduate students and early career scientists who add their expert commentary via public Hypothesis annotation to openly accessible articles published in the Science family of journals. This collection of over 100 expert-annotated articles in biochemistry, genetics, space science, neuroscience, and other areas provides students with an accessible way of reading primary scientific literature. To further assist students in reading annotated articles, individual annotations are tagged according to a particular “learning lens,” including: glossary, for key terms; previous work; author’s experiments; results and conclusions; news and policy links; connections to learning standards; and also reference and notes.
Initial research about SiTC suggests the project can help improve scientific literacy and communication. A pilot study with multiple undergraduate biology courses at Florida International University found that students perceived annotated articles as a useful study aid, particularly for understanding vocabulary and interpreting graphs.35 As for the graduate students and early career researchers who annotate Science articles, research about SiTC’s annotator training program suggests it improves annotators’ self-reported confidence in their science communication skills.36 SiTC demonstrates how students can easily access, read, and come to comprehend scientific concepts and inquiry methods through their engagement with annotated learning resources.
While SiTC is a particularly promising example, annotation has played a role in the design of multiple science education efforts. The Task Annotation Project in Science (TAPS) provides K-12 educators with annotated assessment tasks, aligned to the Next Generation Science Standards, that help guide teachers in more equitably monitoring their students’ learning.37 Osmosis is a repository of open educational resources (OER) created to crowdsource the future of medical education.38 Undergraduate and graduate medical students have access to thousands of digital resources, and they have also used annotation - through comments, feedback forms, and ratings - to improve the quality of these learning materials.39 The National Science Digital Library (NSDL), created in 2000, is an archive of open access teaching and learning resources for learners of all ages across science, technology, engineering, and mathematics disciplines.40 Annotation has been used to tag the NSDL’s resources and improve information accessibility, support student interaction with multimedia content through a digital notebook, and educators have annotated NSDL resources to design online learning activities for their students.41 And research about the digital annotation tool Perusall, often used in conjunction with science textbooks, has shown that college students’ pre-reading and annotation practices can subsequently improve exam performance.42
TAPS, Osmosis, the NSDL, Perusall, and SitC all indicate how the design of science education environments, resources, and student learning practices can benefit from annotation.
Annotation and Educator Learning
As this chapter has primarily focused on students, we would be remiss to not briefly mention how educators and their professional learning can also be aided by annotation. In Chapter 4, when exploring conversation, we introduced the Marginal Syllabus, a project that sustains educators’ social reading and civic writing about educational equity topics through the use of Hypothesis annotation. Notably, the Marginal Syllabus is not the only initiative that leverages open annotation for educators’ professional learning.
Because Hypothesis affords open web annotation of any online text for both public and group-based discussion, various communities of educators have used Hypothesis to read and discuss texts together. In 2017, the Association of American Colleges & Universities first supported the work of multiple higher education institutions in Virginia to design and facilitate Open Learning. This “connectivist” course is geared toward faculty, in any discipline and from anywhere, curious about open education.43 Three iterations of Open Learning, from 2017 through 2019, have featured public annotation conversation as a primary means of guiding faculty to become familiar with, and to discuss their potential use of, both OER and open educational practices. Similarly, the Digital Scholarship Studio at Trinity College organized Digital Humanities in/of the Public, a “summer reading group” in 2018 that featured seven articles and ongoing annotation conversation among faculty.44 Around the same time, a group of K-12 educators read an open version of Jacques Rancière’s The Ignorant Schoolmaster and used annotation to discuss the book’s applications to their teaching practices.45 This effort echoed earlier efforts among educators to collaboratively read and openly annotate the digital versions of books pertinent to education, as with Ivan Illich’s Deschooling Society46 and We Make the Road by Walking, an edited series of conversations between Myles Horton and Paulo Freire.47 And in the fall of 2018, annotation conversation was a featured means of educator interaction in Equity Unbound, an “equity-focused, open, connected learning experience.”48
Projects like Open Learning, Equity Unbound, Marginal Syllabus, Digital Humanities in/of the Public, and the collaborative annotation of digital books suggest, in our assessment, an emerging trend among educators to voluntarily participate in professionally-relevant learning as driven by their interests, as connected through their social networks, and as mediated by open and collaborative annotation. In other words, these efforts indicate a nascent model of annotation-enabled professional development.
Whether these discussions last for but a few days or extend over many months, the technical features of open web annotation can assist educators in finding, following, joining, and rejoining conversations of professional import. Because of its standards-based data model, Hypothesis’ open data can be collected and analyzed by third-party services. For example, CROWDLAAERS is a public service that visualizes how “crowds” of annotators add “layers” of Hypothesis annotation to shared texts.49 The dashboard has been designed in coordination with educators to chart the growth of annotation conversation over time, share social learning analytics, and inform their ongoing dialogue. Such tools are an additional indicator that open and collaborative annotation can be used to foster professional learning as educators join and shape accessible and participatory learning opportunities across texts and contexts.50
Annotation and the Right to Learn
In our introductory chapter we quoted Kenneth Grahame’s 1892 essay Marginalia in which he posits that a student’s marginal “scribbling” is more valuable - that annotation has more “worth” - than the content of the text. That may indeed be the case for some students, as evidence presented in this chapter strongly suggests annotation does support learners as they read, write, develop discipline-specific skills, and collaborate together to make sense of their texts and their learning. Research indicates that annotation, and specifically digital and social annotation, is a valuable aid for students’ reading strategies and comprehension, their language learning, motivation, collaboration, and shared knowledge construction. Yet might the use of annotation for learning also work toward a broader social, civic, and moral value? We conclude this chapter by describing how collaborative annotation is helping students to argue for the right to learn.
The Right to Learn Undergraduate Research Collective (R2L), directed by professor Manuel Espinoza, is a research group at the University of Colorado Denver that, for more than a decade, has studied the legal, moral, and philosophical criteria of educational dignity.51 The group is comprised of undergraduate and graduate students, and now university alumni, whose research pursues two interrelated goals: First, advancing an argument that education is a fundamental right of personhood;52 and second, seeking to amend the Colorado Constitution. In America, education law is a matter delegated to states. And in Colorado, the state mandates that a thorough and uniform system of free public schools be made available to all students.
Colorado’s educational mandate was written in 1876. As R2L argues for education as a fundamental right of personhood irrespective of a person’s social or legal status, and as R2L works to amend the Colorado Constitution and ensure that the state provide an education consonant with human dignity, the group has become self-described “dignity scholars” who have studied the notions and criteria of dignity in landmark legal cases. In doing so, R2L has used Hypothesis as their “human rights tool” to examine legal evidence and build an argument for legislative change.
R2L’s annotation practices are, in some respects, similar to those of students who annotate for course assignments or other learning activities. R2L members read texts, add original in-line annotation, read peer annotation, comment, work toward consensus or note disagreement, and collectively build knowledge together toward a common goal. Then again, the annotation activities of R2L are voluntary, with research team members motivated not by a grade but by the desire to enact change. While studying landmark cases like Tennessee v. Lane and Lobato v. Colorado, R2L members have read and annotated thousands of pages of documents, from the district to the Supreme Court, including amicus briefs, interviews, and opinions.
This social annotation has helped R2L define the contested idea of dignity, identify related concepts such as equality, and determine legal criteria for these terms. Currently, R2L is authoring a handbook, similar to a concordance or index, that delineates both criteria for and examples of dignity across multiple cases. This handbook, augmented by R2L’s annotation, will provide evidence necessary to argue that the Colorado Constitution be amended to provide an education in harmony with the dignity of the human person.
In April of 2019, at a digital learning conference, Manuel Espinoza spoke with educators, technologists, and annotation enthusiasts about R2L and “the role that Hypothesis plays in human rights work.”53 R2L’s use of open, social, and collaborative annotation has helped members to “disperse the mind,” to make their shared inquiry and intelligence “truly social.” Annotation has helped R2L “get smarter” about educational dignity. As Espinoza concluded:
Dignity is what makes our argument comprehensible and intelligible. The human mind makes it possible. But Hypothesis makes it realizable: It helps us to organize our thinking and to archive and curate it and carry it on. It allows us to see what conclusions we have reached. It allows us to learn from our past actions and… the steady expansion of our collective mind.
While this chapter has argued that annotation can aid learning, R2L is a unique example of learners collaboratively leveraging annotation to mine the legal record, amass evidence, and argue that learning should be a fundamental human right.
And what about you and your experience reading this chapter?