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Leveraging Annotation Activities and Tools to Promote Collaborative Learning

Collaborative annotation activities support learning by encouraging students to learn with and from their peers. Research has shown that a collaborative learning environment can help strengthen student confidence, as well as foster their critical thinking skills and active engagement in learning. The following resource offers an overview of some of the benefits of collaborative annotation, as well as specific tools and sample activities to help facilitate this collaboration. 

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The CTL is here to help! 

Want to incorporate annotation activities in your course? Trying to determine what platform might best support your pedagogical needs? The CTL is here to help – email CTLFaculty@columbia.edu to schedule a 1-1 consultation!

Cite this resource: Columbia Center for Teaching and Learning (2022). Leveraging Annotation Activities and Tools to Promote Collaborative Learning. Retrieved [today’s date] from https://ctl.columbia.edu/resources-and-technology/resources/activities-tools-collaborative-learning/

Getting Started with Collaborative Annotation Activities 

Whatever the modality, we must remember that learning is a social process. A student does not learn alone (Garg & Dougherty, 2022). 

Research shows that learning is a social process – students benefit when they have opportunities to collaborate and learn both from and with each other (Garg & Dougherty, 2022; Laal & Ghodsi, 2012). The benefits of a collaborative learning environment span the social, psychological, and academic spheres, and range from helping students build confidence and social support systems, to helping students foster critical thinking skills and encouraging active engagement in their learning (Barkley et al., 2014; Laal & Ghodsi, 2012). To learn more about the benefits of collaborative learning, watch the following video from the CTL’s MOOC “Inclusive Teaching: Supporting All Students in the College Classroom.”     

One powerful way to promote and encourage social learning is through collaborative annotation activities (e.g., active reading assignments). Collaborative annotation assignments can “promote high pre-class reading compliance, engagement, and conceptual understanding,” leading to deeper student interaction and engagement with course materials, while also helping instructors better gauge students’ understanding, comprehension, and engagement (Miller et al., 2018, p. 3). The table below offers several sample annotation activities that foster collaboration and engage students in active learning. All of the activities included below can be adapted for any classroom setting, with or without the use of additional tools. The following section will highlight tools that instructors can use to meet their specific learning goals. 

Sample Collaborative Annotation Activities
Guided reading assignments using instructor-generated prompts or questions  Guiding prompts are a great way to focus a reading assignment and scaffold further collaborative annotation. Instructors can provide prompts ahead of a reading that will help students read and prepare for a deeper in-class discussion. At the same time, instructors can also place questions or prompts throughout a text to draw students’ attention to specific content. When provided within a collaborative reading activity, students can build upon their peers’ responses to further enhance their own interactions with a particular text.  
Collaborative annotation guided by student-generated prompts Collaborative annotation can be a great activity used to springboard a more extensive in-class discussion. Students can ask questions, respond to peers’ comments, generate new ideas, and more. Instructors can then draw from these annotations during in-class discussion, encouraging students to elaborate their comments and questions. These can also help instructors gauge student understanding ahead of class discussion. 
Group reading assignments  Although reading assignments are typically completed individually, group reading assignments encourage students to learn with and from each other in a social, collaborative process. Group reading assignments can be assigned in two different ways: first, different groups in a course can be assigned the same material from a text. Another option would be assigning groups different sections or chunks of a course text. Your choice in group assignment should align with your goals for a particular reading: is it important for all students to engage with the full text? Could students share with each other the key takeaways from a particular section? 
Whole class annotation of an image, video, map, etc. Not all course content is text-based – there may be opportunities where instructors ask students to annotate an image, video, or map. This can be done in any classroom environment; students can be asked to bring certain technologies to class, or it can be completed without technology (e.g., using a whiteboard, pencil and paper). In larger courses, students can be divided into smaller groups, working with the same or different (but related) documents.

Tools to Support Collaborative Annotation Activities 

As with any classroom assignment or activity, it’s important for collaborative annotation activities to align with your course objectives and goals. Likewise, the tool you use for a given activity should align with the goals of the activity itself. The following section introduces several collaborative learning tools. 


Perusall is a social annotation tool that engages students in reading as a communal activity.. In doing so, it makes class reading a more interactive activity for students, and offers instructors tools to gauge student understanding and engagement. For example, instructors can use Perusall’s “confusion report” to identify the most popular questions, as well as specific areas in the text where the most students are commenting and annotating; this report also categorizes questions into theme or topic areas. At the same time, Perusall helps students feel better prepared for class participation, as it encourages reading for comprehension rather than for completion. Students can interact with the text, their peers, and their instructor throughout the text using the variety of Perusall’s commenting and chat features. In this way, Perusall promotes deeper student engagement with course content and their fellow peers. 

Perusall supports a range of course materials and formats, including PDF documents, website pages, podcasts, videos, and more. Additionally, Perusall offers several accessibility features including Open Dyslexic font and built-in text to speech capability. Within Perusall, instructors and students alike have a great deal of flexibility and choice – instructors can assign group reading assignments, specify particular chapters or sections of a text, and pose questions throughout the text; students can upvote their peers’ contributions, ask additional questions, or join a threaded discussion on a particular area of the text. 

To see how Columbia faculty have found success using Perusall, see Dr. Weiping Wu’s (Professor of Architecture, Planning, and Preservation and a 2021 Provost’s Senior Faculty Teaching Scholar) CTL Voices submission Engaging Students Beyond the Classroom by Using Perusall.  


Hypothesis works on any webpage; it requires a browser plugin that allows users to layer their own highlights and comments over an existing webpage. Additionally, there is a process for annotating PDFs provided by instructors. 

Because it overlays existing web pages, there are limitations to the kinds of materials students can annotate with Hypothesis. For example, Hypothesis does not allow for the annotation of individual videos at specific timestamps. Like Perusall, Hypothesis allows for threaded discussions, assigned annotation groups, and deeper engagement with course reading materials. Hypothesis allows students across course sections to annotate one shared document, whereas other tools (e.g., Perusall) require each course section to have its own copy. 


Mediathread is a tool developed by the Columbia Center for Teaching and Learning to support the collection, curation, and close analysis and annotation of a range of media texts. Used across disciplines and Schools at Columbia, Mediathread offers different ways for students to engage with media objects. Given its focus on media engagement, Mediathread helps students curate video collections, annotate at specific timestamps, and embed video clips within their responses to instructor-generated prompts.  For more information on Mediathread including different assignment types and how to get started, see the CTL’s resource on Mediathread

Google Suite

The Google suite includes Google Docs, Google Slides, and more; each of the tools in the Google suite can be used for collaborative annotation activities. For example, Google Docs are a great way to set up collaborative note-taking processes, as well as collaborative annotations or comments on a specific text or image. Similarly, the Q&A Feature in Google Slides allows students to annotate and interact with instructors in real time during a lecture. For more details on how to set up the Google Suite tool of your choice, see the CTL’s resource on Collaborative Learning


The whiteboard and annotation features in Zoom are also helpful for setting up collaborative annotation spaces. These features allow for annotating images, documents, and more within a single shared screen. For more information about Zoom whiteboard and annotation features, see the following CTL video on setting up and engaging students in Zoom. 

Tools Comparison Table 

The following table highlights several key features in a few of the tools described above. Please note, however, the features included in the table are not exhaustive; in many instances, there are ways of adapting tools’ features to meet a specific need. For additional support in choosing the right tool for your collaborative annotation activities, email the CTL at ColumbiaCTL@columbia.edu

As you read this table, consider questions such as:

  • What features do I need to run the assignment?
  • How might the tool suit my course and activity goals?


Built-in Features Perusall Hypothesis Mediathread
Use with CourseWorks (Canvas)  Can be linked to within CourseWorks Instructions for assignments or activities can be linked to within CourseWorks Compatible with CourseWorks assignments and course roster
Media types supported
  • PDFs
  • Webpages
  • Videos 
  • Podcasts 
  • eBooks (license needed) 
  • Webpages
  • PDFs 
  • EPUBs
  • Videos
  • PDFs
  • Static image files (e.g., jpegs)
Commenting features (e.g., multimodal comments including images, equations, etc.) 
  • Text
  • Links
  • Equations
  • Images
  • Video
  • HTML
  • Text
  • Links
  • Equations
  • Images
  • Text
  • Links
  • Video selections from the collection
Create and manage assignments within the tool
  • Individual and group assignments can be created and graded
  • Assignments cannot be set up
  • Individual assignments of different types can be created and graded
  • Discussion assignments allow student collaboration
Create and manage student groups
  • Groups can be created
  • Groups can be created
  • Groups cannot be created 
Student anonymity options
  • Students can choose to post anonymously
  • Assignments can be set as fully anonymous
  • Note: instructor can still see student names 
  • No student-to-student anonymity settings
  • Private groups can be created
  • No student-to-student anonymity settings

Resources & References

Barkley, E.F., Major, C.H., & Cross, K.P. (2014). Collaborative learning techniques: A handbook for college faculty, second edition. Jossey-Bass.  

Columbia Center for Teaching and Learning. (2021). Collaborative Learning

Garg, N. & Dougherty, K.D. (2022). Education surges when students learn together. Inside Higher Ed. 

Miller, K. Lukoff, B., King, G., & Mazur, E. (2018). Use of social annotation platform for pre-class reading assignments in a flipped introductory physics class. Frontiers in Education.