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Collaborative Annotation: Teaching Close Reading with the MIT Annotation Studio

Collaborative Annotation: Teaching Close Reading with the MIT Annotation Studio

In January, I posted a draft lesson plan for an annotation assignment using the MIT Annotation Studio interface. I received a lot of encouragement and great feedback from the HASTAC community and the MIT team, and I updated my materials accordingly in preparation for teaching a section of introductory composition in a computer integrated classroom this quarter. Last week, I asked students to work in groups of three in the lab, with specific annotation tasks for each group, to close read a poem by Sherman Alexie. (The title of the course is Public Humanities in the Pacific Northwest -- I'll post more on teaching public scholarship to undergraduates in a few weeks!) Students were very productive, enthusiastic, and overwhelmingly positive in their feedback on the platform. I highly recommend this resource for teaching close reading, especially in a digitally enabled collaborative classroom space. 

Example student feedback:

So I really enjoyed using your website, it was easy to navigate and accomplished what it was supposed to do. I appreciate that we can add links and videos for future reference. Very cool to see the rest of the class annotations as well. Would be interesting to create mini-groups for projects, etc. Strengths: clean layout, simple, easy to use. Would also like different colors of highlighters. Thanks.


It was fun and easy to use. I liked how we could see the class annotations as well.


It was very easy to use and was helpful to be able to annotate an online source. Also very helpful to be able to see other people’s annotations and ideas to further progress my own thoughts and understanding of the reading.

Partial view of the screen students could see when they selected the shared text and the full set of saved annotations:


All materials developed for the assignment: 

Lesson Plan: Teaching Annotation using MIT’s Annotation Studio Interface

In-Class: Teach annotation as a practice of reading by using the relevant section of the textbook – consider a brief in-class demonstration and activity using the textbook prior to assigning this exercise as homework or in a lab setting.

Tech requirements: each student must have access to the internet (no in-class tech needed, though the computer integrated classroom worked very well for this lesson plan)

Instructor prep:

·         Read the project background information:

·         Register for the Annotation Studio tool (free)

·         Sign in

·         Choose one of the existing documents or upload your own (process: upload, publish)

·         Click on the document to open it. You will be able to annotate from here. Annotate a few lines as a model for your students. Tag your comments for organization. Check the box next to “Allow your group to view this annotation” for each comment you insert.

·         The site will save all of your annotations.

·         Handout the assignment sheet below with instructions for students



Handout: Collaborative Online Annotation

Task: Practice annotation of a literary text using the Annotation Studio interface


·         Register for the Annotation Studio tool at

First name / Last name / UW email / Affiliation: University of Washington / unique pw

·         Under Documents click on àHow to Write the Great American Indian Novel

·         Now you can start annotating! Highlight any area of the text, and then click on the button that looks like a pencil. A text box will appear. Add comments and tags, making sure to check the box “Allow your group to view this annotation” for each comment you insert. Tag your comments based on the group assignments below (Ex: if you are in group one, every comment you include will be tagged “Vocabulary.”) Experiment with formatting options, adding links, and image/video options available here.

·         Note that all of your comments will have your name on them. I will review these for participation points for our class today.

·         Annotate the text using the guidance for each group below. By focusing each group on a specific task, we will collaboratively build a set of annotations that covers a number of categories of textual analysis.

Group One: Vocabulary:Work together to locate unfamiliar or richly descriptive words to define for the class. Use Merriam-Webster or another authoritative dictionary to support your definitions, and include the link to the dictionary definition in your annotation. In your own words, in contemporary language, place the word into an example sentence to help to demonstrate its meaning. (I expect this to be original: do not copy and paste example sentences from the dictionary.)

Group Two: Cultural / Literary / Geographical References:What are the explanations for these references? What is the background information that a new reader of Alexie’s work would need to fully understand the allusions he is making? Include external links to sites that authoritatively explain these names, places, etc.

Group Three: Claims:Is the speaker making any arguments in this poem? Is he trying to persuade us to see the world from his point of view? Remember, he may make claims about himself, about humanity in general, about race, the environment, history… Each group member must locate at least one claim and the evidence (if any) that the narrator gives to support his claim.

Group Four: Tone / Language / Syntax:How would you describe the tone of this poem? Annotate and describe at least one section that supports your answer. How would you describe Alexie’s use of language (the words he is choosing for descriptions) in this poem? Annotate and describe a section that supports your answer. How would you describe the syntax (sentence construction) at work here? Annotate and describe a section that supports your answer.

Group Five: Social Contexts:Literary critics often read with an attention to gender, race, and class. To this list we might add religious and secular faiths, political statements, and any other aspects of social life or identity one can notice in the text. You may choose to pose questions about these issues in your annotations, rather than attempt to write a finalized idea. Questioning elements of the text is as important as defining them.

Group Six: Impact: How does this poem strike you? Find a section that you find troubling, emotionally moving, or funny (these are just some examples to get you started) – a section that is somehow powerful or revealing to you. Why does this section stand out? What, as precisely as possible, makes the section function in this way – what makes it have this effect on you as a reader?




This is great. Wish I'd had this post -- and this tool -- in past semesters for 200-level lit courses.  It's really awesome that you incude your actual handouts. So helpful. I also appreciate this idea: "Note that all of your comments will have your name on them. I will review these for participation points for our class today." This is a fanstastic way to make the students' work visible when otherwise it might get lost or muddled on paper. Also a nice way for naturally quiet or alternative-ability students to participate. 

My class and I have used a Google doc for annotations in the past, and it will lag or crash when 20+ students are annotating simultaneously. I wonder if the Annotation Studio also has this issue. Or, maybe you have one person in each group complete the annotations so everyone isn't using the platform at once...


Thanks, Rachael! I really appreciate your comments, especially pertaining to the participatory aspect of the platform and its exceptional capacity for including students whose contributions in a class discussion scenario may not be as visible.

As for the crashing issue, I have to say that we did not experience any setbacks. I have had similar crashing and limited access scenarios with Google docs, though I definitely still use it (mostly for informal notes and feedback for students to share). I would say that for a longer activity, like this annotation lesson, the MIT platform works very well, and for shorter participatory note sharing Google docs remains the best option.