Teaching Hub

Social Reading in Undergraduate Courses

by Matt Smith (Hudson Strode Program in Renaissance Studies), Andrew Deaton (History), and Camille Morgan (Anthropology)

How might a class read together remotely? One way is to assign a reading and then have students respond on a discussion board. Compared to Blackboard’s Discussion Board, the Hypothesis app has both drawbacks and benefits. One drawback, for example, is that the tool has only a few built-in options, including annotation and highlighting. There are, however, several specific pedagogical advantages to using Hypothesis in Blackboard, in addition to its ease-of-use and aesthetic design, that make it an effective teaching tool.

UA is running a fall 2020 pilot study for Hypothesis, which others have put to use in a variety of ways. What follows are some practical notes learned from teaching with this tool.

Helpful Discussion Tool

GIF of text highlight and commentIn the Blount Scholars Program, for example, most of the curriculum is textual and the classes are largely discussion-based. Hypothesis maximizes the discursive potential of textual objects. Students can use the annotation tool to comment on specific parts of a text, which is particularly helpful when students are trying to interpret a poem or a single line of a difficult reading. Because the annotation tool allows students to comment on a single line of text, it encourages students to think about texts with greater sensitivity and attention to detail.

Moreover, students can comment on other student’s annotations, which mirrors the peer-review process in academic discourse. Furthermore, the easy-to-use annotation function allows students to engage with each other so quickly that it simulates in-class discussion. For these reasons, Hypothesis has led to more robust discussion than has Blackboard’s Discussion Board, particularly in classroom discussion and textual analysis.

Getting Students to Use It

So, how do you set a certain tone with Hypothesis? The app has been helpful to encourage undergraduate students to think of Hypothesis as a virtual study session, thereby setting the tone of collaboration while also encouraging them to ask organic questions and to make meaningful contributions.

The best thing you can do is to model best practices: log on ahead of time and make model annotations. There is no way to make your own annotations as the instructor stand out, so you have to get students’ attention immediately. If you plant enough model annotations throughout the text and email broad touchstone questions ahead of time for students to reference when deciding how to annotate, you should find that it becomes a largely turnkey operation for you.

Tell students to interact with one another and you will be amazed as, lo and behold, they actually do it! Be sure to give gentle reminders and encouragement and to monitor for accurate information as students engage with one another, but take a position of passive oversight rather than active intervention. Save that for the lecture. Remember that, especially this semester, students are surprisingly eager to interact with their peers. Use that!

Best for Shorter Texts

While the potential for more in-depth analysis of shorter texts exists within Hypothesis, longer texts are ill-suited to this purpose because of the increasing possibility for insightful comments to go unnoticed. This problem is compounded by the necessity to refresh the document to view new comments. Once the document is refreshed, the user inevitably has to scroll through the text to find the new posts. Considering these technical challenges, I would suggest using Hypothesis only for documents under ten pages in length.

Needs a +1

Furthermore, if Hypothesis is the only tool used for a class discussion, it can be difficult to guide the students toward synthesis. To this end, if the purpose of the reading lies not in the specifics of the text but in the big picture ideas presented therein, Blackboard Discussion Board might be best suited to getting the students where they need to go.

Using the notes feature within Hypothesis to pose broader questions is a possibility; however, students have found it challenging to keep track of continuous annotations on textural analysis and simultaneously respond to questions involving synthesis or evaluation. After all, switching back and forth between multiple levels of Bloom’s taxonomy is no small task.