A brief writeup of how I am currently using Perusall, a collaborative annotation platform.

Why Annotate Online?

Teaching in online or hybrid forms has pushed many of us to consider new ways to create discussion, especially in times of “Zoom fatigue”. Several years ago, I jettisoned asychronous forms like the “discussion post” (which never really seem to spark discussion), and wanted to find a way of engaging with the text directly with my students as we prepare for class discussion.

Perusall is a free, collaborative annotation platform that allows students to perform social reading. It’s one of several such options, including is ideal for annotating the open web, including nontextual sources (like video). Both are compatible with most of the major learning management platforms (LMS) used in higher education. In my courses with eighteenth-century content, or other content out of copyright, I find Perusall to be best suited for my own needs. I use Perusall in face to face and online courses, in core curriculum courses, majors courses, and graduate seminars. What follows is an overview of how I introduce Perusall to students, assessment of their contributions, and my adjustments over the past year.

What I Put On Perusall

Perusall can be used for purchased textbooks, website “snapshots” (not live), or manually-uploaded documents (PDF, EPUB, or Word). As of Fall 2020, you can now also upload or link to YouTube, Vimeo, Dropbox, SharePoint, or Google Drive, or a direct URL to an MP4, MPEG, or Ogg video files.

Files from the open web are uncontroversial, but copyrighted materials are a kind of edge case. Because this is a locked system restricted to students at my institution, I feel comfortable uploading materials that would be available to them through our library’s digital holdings. I include full citation, including DOI (Digital Object Identifier) or comparable link, for all works.

Because I am a book historian, I provide an early edition of the literary text under consideration, and assign a paper teaching edition. Students are expected to read the paper edition, then consult the Perusall copy to annotate. Hathi Trust is  an excellent source for early editions prior to 1920.

I then create assignments in my LMS (Canvas), which are linked to Perusall. When the student visits the assignment, they click a button and are taken directly into Perusall. No additional/new login is required, there is no setup on their end. Perusall has excellent documentation for how to create assignments in the LMSs they support (Blackboard, Canvas, Moodle, Desire2Learn, Sakai, Schoology) as well as how to create a standalone course. Syncing with your LMS requires a key provided by your institution IT support, which is usually just 1-2 emails.

Introduction to Students

  • You can see my full syllabus/assignment language here.

  • In the first day/week of class I walk through Perusall in person (if online, I will do this through Zoom screenshare).  I suspect this will be *easier* online because students won't be as likely to try to access Perusall on their phones. 

  • It takes about 1-2 weeks for students to get the hang of it, but it's pretty intuitive after that.


Perusall provides feedback based on metrics you can customize (number of annotations, their placement in the text, how much other students engage with them, a nebulous notion of “quality”). For very large classes, this kind of immediate, weekly feedback is potentially quite useful.

My custom settings (in the “scoring” tab) are currently as follows:

  • Slight preference (25%) for annotations throughout the text;

  • All annotations, even cruddy ones, receive at least one point;

  • Maximum credit for annotations that start a conversation (“Getting Response”) or that get upvoted by me or students (“Upvoting Component”);

  • A late-period window for partial credit (for my graduate class, a week);

That said, I would never entrust any part of a student’s grade to an algorithm. While I allow Perusall to provide this feedback (see notes below), the algorithmic “grades” count for 0% of the students’ final grade.

Instead, I do manual check-ins at two weeks in, at midterm, and at the end of the semester. Perusall allows me to see the individual contributions of each student to do this kind of assessment. Students can also provide a metacognitive reflection highlighting their strengths prior to the end of the course.

Part of the final grade also comes from peer evaluation: I create a brief survey (I use Qualtrics, but SurveyMonkey or others could work) where students peer-assess their classmates’ contributions (as “MVP,” “helpful,” “no info to comment,” or “actively harmful”).

Students are encouraged to use their annotations for their formal writing assignments, and in some courses I assign a midsemester reflection that asks them to look back over their annotations to find controlling questions, themes, ideas that can fuel their future work.

In the spring of 2020 I set the default at seven annotations but not told students this was the threshold (which is Perusall’s recommendation)—I understand why theoretically, but it was unnecessarily nerve-wracking for my spring term’s students. I am planning (as of Fall 2020) to be less prescriptive with its use in graduate seminars, while modeling how it can be used to start thinking about their larger research.

Connecting Perusall Annotations to Formal Assignments

In my core literature (freshman/sophmore level) course, I have students sign up for a keyterm (from a list I generate, though students can make up their own) in Week 2 of the course. That's their first hashtag prompt.  
Paper 2 in the course asks them to directly use this information to shape a paper about the changing use of the term across our readings.
I am planning (as of 2020) to be less prescriptive with its use in graduate seminars, while modeling how it can be used to start thinking about their larger research.


I have a page in the LMS called "A Guide to Social Reading with Perusall" that is directly adapted from the one on Perusall's documentation.