Teaching Critical Thinking with Social Annotation Software

Written by: Pamela Baker

One traditional assignment that humanities and social sciences faculty use to help undergraduates develop critical thinking is the primary source analysis. 

This activity involves examining and interpreting original documents — diaries, letters, speeches, and photographs, for example — to understand a particular historical period, event, or person. The assignment requires students to engage with the material, analyze its context, and draw meaningful conclusions based on evidence. A typical primary source analysis assignment will ask students to consider the context the source was created in and for what purpose.

Grace Moser, Professor of History at St. Charles Community College in Missouri, is using social annotation software for a modern take on the primary source analysis assignment in her history survey courses. Social annotation software allows a group of users — all the students in a seminar or a small group of students in a lecture, for example — to mark up and discuss an artifact uploaded to the platform. It resembles the comment feature on word processing tools like Word and Google Docs, except the document may be the image of a historical text, a photo, or a video file. 

The administrative side of social annotation software includes grading and data analysis tools that help the instructor understand student progress and engagement. In her history survey classes, Moser uses Perusall, which syncs with learning management system platforms such as Moodle and Canvas. Similar social annotation software products include Hypothesis and NowComment.

Challenges Teaching Primary Source Analysis

Primary source analysis can be an effective way to facilitate critical thinking skills by teaching students to question assumptions, consider multiple perspectives, and develop informed opinions. The goal is to avoid taking a document at face value and instead ask critical questions about it before drawing conclusions. 

Moser says one challenge of teaching primary source analysis is that students may find primary sources intimidating because the historical events and language are unfamiliar. Students may struggle to connect with the material, perceiving it as distant or irrelevant. Or they may need help distinguishing truth from fiction when reading what they perceive to be authoritative sources, such as statements from law enforcement. 

"It's difficult for students because it's higher-order thinking, and it’s a challenge to teach them how to ask questions,” Moser says. “They're trying to understand the author's motives and biases and recognize who the audience is as a way to understand more about the time period." 

That’s where the social aspect of annotating texts comes in.

Reading MLK critically

Moser discovered social annotation software through English department colleagues whose students used it to annotate literary documents, journal articles, or textbooks. It soon occurred to her that using it for primary source documents “will show me what my students are thinking,” she recalls. “And that would enable me to teach them how to read those sources."

With the support of the Fueling Innovation Through Technology Academy at St. Charles Community College, Moser worked with instructional designers to develop a new assignment. She had in mind a project that allows students to participate in small groups, and would work with her asynchronous online courses. 

Before getting to the assignment, she began with scaffolding activities where she introduced her students to the practice of annotating documents.  Next, Moser created a video to demonstrate how to use the social annotation software to annotate artifacts. Finally, she organized them into groups of five so they could see what their peers were posting and respond to further the discussion.

Early in the term, she used the social annotation software to help students develop foundational skills in finding primary sources. Later in the term, students were ready for a more advanced analysis.

For that activity, she uploaded artifacts from Martin Luther King Jr.'s library, including scripts and digitized recordings of speeches, political cartoons, selections from the FBI’s file on King, and even hate mail he received. 

While annotation traditionally is done on written text, one feature of modern software tools is the ability to annotate video and audio files, so students can add comments and questions at specific moments in a recording. And the students’ annotations could be in the form of video or sound files.

That aligned with a universal design approach overall to provide flexibility for all learners, Moser explains. For example, she provided audio transcription of the cartoons and transcripts of the video and audio recordings.

The first step of the activity was asking students to review the documents and make their own observations so she could see what they were thinking and paying attention to. Next, she asked follow-up questions about those observations, encouraging them to reflect further. 

For example, she asked students to account for King’s reputation at the time of the source they were analyzing, and showed them Gallup polls about King from 1963, 1964, 1966, and 2011, and to note how his reputation changed over time. She asked, "Why do you think there's a difference between 2011 and the 1960s?"

In another example, she asked students to develop a thesis about how an FBI agent would interpret a speech by King critical of the U.S. involvement in the war in Vietnam.

Lastly, Moser asked students to review and comment on their earlier annotations and to reflect on what they learned. 

This primary source analysis activity on the King material came at the 12th week of the term after earlier activities that practiced more foundational skills on sourcing documents. Eventually, students wrote a historical narrative that used primary sources as evidence and their annotations as the basis of their interpretations.

A Positive Outcome

Moser says this assignment gives students a chance to practice the work of being historians while teaching them critical thinking skills. “This is unique because students engage in primary source material themselves. It's not just me explaining or interpreting for them,” she says.

Although a few students resisted learning new software, Moser says most of the class liked learning through the primary source analysis activity. She also believes the social annotation software helps remove one barrier to equity for students who are reluctant to speak up in other discussion formats.

For peers considering using a combination of social annotation software and a primary source analysis, Moser recommends the website Historical Thinking Matters, which teaches students how to read primary sources and construct historical narratives. 

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