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Perusall: Transforming the Way Students Read for Class

Being an education professor means constant self-interrogation. If I’m supposed to be teaching teachers, I have to practice good teaching, right? But it’s also true that education professors, consumed by research or administration, can fall into the rut of teaching as we’ve always taught. While this might hurt students in any discipline, it seems particularly harmful to teaching pre-service teachers, who need to see pedagogical innovation in both theory and in practice.

Problems with the Traditional Model of Reading Before College Classes

Reynolds_DanFor me, the pandemic forced me to reconsider the assumption in a traditional pedagogical challenge: students reading for class. In my first years as a professor, I relied on a traditional model. I assigned students material to read, and then organized activities and discussions in class. It worked relatively well, but it also worked against everything I knew as a literacy scholar. I know that reading can be a powerful social practice, but my teaching invited them to read alone in their dorm rooms or apartments. I know that reading can be a dialogic and communal experience for all students, but the in-class discussions were often dominated by a few eager discussants. I know there were aspects of my assigned readings that students might find insightful, but we had limited class time to unpack them together. So my own pedagogy contradicted what I knew about good literacy instruction.

For assessment, I knew that I didn’t want to give reading quizzes or require written summaries, but I also knew that some students invested little preparation in encountering the ideas in the assigned texts. I knew that students might struggle with certain complex points in their assigned readings, but there was no way to help them before class. These problems all seemed insurmountable with the traditional model.

Before the pandemic, I couldn’t imagine another model. Students had to prepare for class, and my texts were either on paper or on a PDF, which invited students to read in that traditional way. Class existed at a certain time period, and before that start time was the “preparation time” and the class period was the “discussion time.” These structures offered the comforting clarity of the traditional model to me and my students but also didn’t consider the limiting effects on potential learning.

A Solution: Perusall annotation platform 

In Spring 2020, when the pandemic was upending teaching and learning practices, I discovered Perusall: a platform that allows PDF course readings to be uploaded and assigned for students to collaboratively annotate before class (see below for what Perusall looks like). Perusall immediately transformed how students prepared for class and shifted our in-class discussions. If a student asked a question two days before class, I could answer it that day or, even better, a classmate could answer it, usually faster than I could. Students could initiate discussion points that my planned activities did not anticipate, allowing me to see the richness of their interactions with the texts’ ideas even before my structured in-class activities.


The Perusall environment

Suddenly, reading for class was not an experience the class all had alone in their dorm rooms, but rather together in an evolving, asynchronous set of voices. Perusall even has an-@ tag function, allowing them to specifically invite classmates or me to respond to a point. This digital social environment operated differently than the in-class social environment: several of my more reserved students who rarely participated in class were sharing insights on Perusall. Humor erupted because students could post memes, videos, and links in response to each other. Eliciting their ideas strengthened the discourse and the communal bonds of the whole class.

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Not only did Perusall reshape preparation for class, but it also reshaped in-class activities. We’d often devote a few minutes of Zoom class to extending the Perusall discussions, allowing the students who’d read two days before class to interact with the annotations of students who commented just before class. This had the effect of allowing the “pre-class” time to flow directly into class. It also re-envisioned my discussion activities: instead of only bringing in my perspective, I could use the engaging questions posed by my students on Perusall as genuine conversation prompts. Students arrived to class not waiting for me to tell them what to discuss, but ready to continue a discussion they’d already started.

The design of the tool also proved far superior to the other traditional digital teaching tool: the discussion board. While required discussion board posts can often descend into merely recapitulating ideas or students repeatedly praising an initial poster’s ideas, the Perusall platform has an “upvote” feature to allow students to react to a post without writing.  This tends to emphasize writing to extend ideas, not recapitulate them. Required discussion board posts are often challenging for teachers to moderate—if a pre-class discussion on a discussion board runs off-topic, an instructor might not know it until just before class. I’ve found that on Perusall, because the annotations are anchored to a point directly on the PDF, it’s much harder for discussions to go off-topic.  Because they’re directly responding to a point the author made in the text, students tend to stick to that author’s idea. The very design of the annotation platform is better designed to keep conversations on-topic without vigilant monitoring of discussion boards.

The platform also helps ensure at least a minimum level of preparation from my students. Because they’re required to annotate, it’s easy for me to see who has commented and who hasn’t—but students whose comments genuinely admit misunderstanding but faithfully engage with the text are still fully credited. While the actual algorithms that score students’ annotations are proprietary, the scoring settings allow teachers to set minimum thresholds (or not), and to incentivize certain types of comments (giving and receiving upvotes, asking or answering questions). 

Perusall Tips and Tricks

For scoring, I’ve experimented with both threshold scoring (a minimum number of thoughtful and dispersed comments earns full 3 points of credit) versus scaled scoring (using the algorithm to incentivize particularly insightful comments to earn a 3 versus a 2).  I found that threshold scoring tended to produce better discussions. Freed from trying to work within the algorithm to get a 3, students simply engaged with the text and each other.  While the algorithm nudges students to ask and answer questions and to disperse their comments throughout the article, it isn’t enough to actually reply to and evaluate the level of student discourse- only the students and I can do that. Overall, the assessment system allows me to efficiently and fairly award points for preparation.

I’ve learned a few other pedagogical tricks uniquely enabled by Perusall. In some classes, we read a particularly powerful article in an early week of the semester (say, week 3), but then we extend that article’s ideas with future discussions and more precise ideas. I’ve found it quite powerful to, during week 10, return to a Week 3 discussion and students can see their exact comments on the discussion (which they couldn’t do with an in-class discussion unless I’d videotaped it).  Seeing their initial responses to an idea that we’d later elaborated on facilitated students’ ability to reflect on what they’d learned over the course of the semester.  

Ultimately, after trying it for four semesters, I’ve found that Perusall is one of the pandemic-inspired pedagogical practices that will stick with my teaching. Students have responded positively to it—one wrote on a teaching evaluation that they’d become “obsessed” with the platform as a way to extend the social atmosphere of class while staying focused on our ideas.  As long as they have their computers, they never lose an assigned reading or forget their books for class!  While I still use paper textbooks at times, the digital affordances of Perusall have transformed the way I help students prepare for class and take away richer ideas from their reading.

This blog was originally published on CLT Teaching Collaborative website. 


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