Turn Pre-Class Readings into Social Learning

When we design courses, we carefully choose readings or videos for students to review before coming to class. We then plan for the fantastic discussions and activities that will occur in class. All too often, when we arrive in class, we quickly realize that most of the students have not engaged with the pre-class materials in any meaningful way. This forces us to shift our plans and leaves us discouraged.

Perusall is a tool in the USask Learning Technology Ecosystem that is specifically designed to get students meaningfully engaging with the pre-class materials. It is what is known as a social annotation tool. It transforms pre-class readings and videos into active and social experiences and creates connections between learners.

In a nutshell, instructors add readings or videos to Perusall. These materials are assigned with a due date and time (before class). When students review the materials, they add written annotations (i.e., comments or questions). Their peers and instructors can see the annotations and upvote or reply to them. Effectively, it brings elements of social media tools into course readings.

This video produced by Perusall provides an overview of its full functionality:

As an instructor, the most exciting thing about students engaging in Perusall is that you are provided with rich assessment data. This assessment data fuels in-class discussion and activities and lets you know where to focus your time and attention.

To ensure you are getting the best data, we’d recommend that you offer students these instructions:

  1. Highlight areas of the video, text, equations, or figures/graphs that are confusing to you, and post a question
  2. If you see questions that your classmates have posted that you can help answer, help them out! Explaining your thinking will help deepen your understanding of the content
  3. If you see questions that your classmates have posted that you also have, upvote the question to get it more attention!
  4. What most interests you, and why? Highlight areas of the text that spark your interest or curiosity — others may feel the same way!
  5. Are there opinions or conclusions in the text that you disagree with? Highlight these and explain why you disagree. Or follow up on a classmates’ post here: do you agree with your classmate? Why or why not?

Once students have created annotations, you have a lot of information at your fingertips. It would be unmanageable to review it all before class. Here are some tips to help you quickly review what they’ve written so you know what to focus on in class.

  • Begin by reviewing the most-upvoted annotations
  • Review the auto-generated confusion report (highlights top three areas of confusion)
  • Look for questions that don’t have a checkmark (indicating they haven’t been sufficiently answered by another student)
  • Look at the longest threads

Perusall is free to use and is integrated into Canvas. Although the tool itself is free, be mindful of the Copyright of the materials being added into Perusall. FAQ #9 on this USask Library page describes the specific considerations for Perusall. Perusall is most easily used with materials you’ve created or Creative Commons (or openly) licensed materials. It is even possible to add your Panopto videos. There are also opportunities to use commercial textbooks within Perusall. Please connect with the USask Bookstore well-in-advance of the term if you want to explore that route.

Have you tried Perusall? Has it made a difference in your teaching? We’d love to hear about your experiences with it. If you’re just learning about Perusall, visit the Perusall page in the LTE Toolkit to learn more.

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