Perusall is an online social annotation tool that aims to increase student engagement with course materials. Here is a quick guide to setting up your course with a discussion of assignment options and some suggestions for how to help students make the most of it. For a more in-depth look at how to create different assignments for history courses specifically, see the companion piece “How to Get Students to Read like Historians with Perusall.”
Setting Up Perusall for your Course
Perusall is relatively easy to start using, although it does take some time to get to know how to make it work best for your classes.
Analytics and Grading Settings
Determine the course settings, which include analytics and mode of grading. The analytics give you information about student engagement in the material, such as viewing and active time spent on the material, number of annotations, and responses given or received. With larger classes, Perusall can also generate a confusion report which tries to assess how well students understood the material. The options relate to the grading mode as automatic grading requires analytics. There are four options for analytics and grading:
- Automatic grading with analytics (instructors can change the scoring criteria, using Perusall’s presets or manually setting the weight of each)
- Manual grading with analytics
- No grade with analytics
- No grade, no analytics
Screenshot of the Perusall algorithm setting options. Photo Credit: Elyssa Gage.
If you select the automatic scoring, you will then set how you want the algorithm to weigh student work. Perusall’s algorithm uses seven weighted metrics: annotation content, opening assignment, reading to the end, active engagement time, getting responses, upvoting, and quizzes. Customize each weight (set to 0% to ignore that metric when computing student scores) and how much engagement is needed to earn credit. Weights can total more than 100% to provide students with multiple ways to earn full credit. The settings apply to the whole course, but you can create unique settings within assignments.
Screenshot of the Perusall scoring setting options. The preset options automatically change the weight of the 7 measures. The settings can also be adjusted manually. Photo Credit: Perusall Blog (https://blog.perusall.com/summer2022updates)
There are many factors that should go into your decision on whether to use the algorithm or grade manually. The algorithm method is good if you are wanting freer discussion, and the point is for students to get words down. It works relatively well in evaluating the engagement of a comment, but it is based largely on length and structure and does not assess the correctness of the content itself. If you want to assess the accuracy of students’ comments, some degree of manual grading will be necessary.
Once you have determined the settings for your course, you can begin building the course library by uploading media including pdfs, URLs, videos, audio files. Perusall also has a library of available books that students can buy or rent directly through the platform and you can request books that are not already available.
Create assignments using one or more of the files in your library. You can assign sections of documents, give specific instructions, set deadlines, change the grade settings for that particular assignment, assign it to a group or an individual student.
A relatively new function, you can now add quizzes to a Perusall assignment. Instructions on quiz setup are here. You first have to create the quiz in the library and then add it to an assignment like a reading. If you assign a quiz in the same assignment as a reading, students will be able to navigate between the two.
The Perusall gradebook allows you to see student grades and with automatic grading, the detailed breakdown of how the grade was calculated. From here you can override the assigned grade. If you use an LMS, you can sync the Perusall gradebook either so each assignment is an assignment in your LMS or so that the average of the scores goes to a single Perusall average. The specifics of LMS integration depend on the institution so I will not go into detail here. For more information and assistance, see this Perusall support page.
For more information about getting started with Perusall, click here or see this demo course in history.
Setting Up Students for Success in Perusall
Students read/watch/listen to the assigned documents from the platform itself and comment on them. Here are some examples of the functions:
- Ask questions, which get tagged for the professor,
- Respond to each other,
- Highlight and make notes of important or striking passages,
- Use hashtags to create a bank of searchable tags across the course,
- Take private notes,
- Use @name in a comment to notify named users of their post.
If you allow them to be visible, students can see their user analytics to understand how they are being evaluated.
Introducing the Platform
For most students, Perusall offers a new way of reading and of being assessed. Of course, you can use the Perusall platform without associating grades, though, emphasizing transparency of purpose is important with or without grades. Offer an introductory Perusall workshop to your class to clarify the expectations for each type of assessment and the parameters for grading from the start. Include pragmatic instruction about using the software but also address larger questions about reading comprehension, discussion, and critical engagement with historical material.
Begin your Perusall workshop for students by giving examples of how to comment on texts in the software, but also how to respond to each other. Encourage the use of upvotes instead of “I agree” comments. When discussing academic honesty, include a section on how to use other students’ Perusall comments.
For freshmen and sophomores, use class to discuss students’ reading habits: when do they do class readings, how do they mark up, how do they take notes, etc. Encourage them to bring examples to share and talk about techniques that have been successful for them or provide a short reading to annotate in class and then discuss their approaches in groups. The exercise can be used for upperclassmen with more focus on reading for different purposes. In my experience, even more advanced students are unsure about their reading habits. To conclude the session, move the discussion to how they think the group format of Perusall will affect how they read and what they mark, how they should approach the text and the discussion. Suggest different reading strategies, such as reading through the documents first and then going back to comment versus commenting as they go. Perusall’s research recommends reading in multiple sitting (“Opening assignment” 2 in the Perusall algorithm), but that might not be a realistic expectation depending on the frequency of the class and student workload.
Use this introductory class to create a set of rules of engagement and “netiquette” (here is an example of netiquette guidelines from the University of Oxford ), as well as create relevant hashtags (e.g. create one per course objective, theme, period, geographic space). Finally, be clear about how and how often you will be participating on the platform. Encourage them to tag you if they want to ensure you respond to a comment.
Lay out ahead of time how students should cite when referencing each other in comments, but also potentially in other assignments.
Students may think of the Perusall website as the thing that should be cited. This may be true with websites, as Perusall takes a snapshot of the site when you add it to the library, therefore the Perusall version and the live site may be different. To clarify for students, include the bibliographic citation either within the library item itself or on the assignment information.
Find out about creating assignments that follow transparency frameworks here.
While Perusall can be an excellent tool to maximize what students get out of reading (or watching/listening to) the material and reduce an instructor’s grading labor, it can also become overwhelming for both parties.
Managing Your Labor
The possibility of grading via the algorithm can make Perusall a good way to manage your labor. However, it is obviously important for professors to be reading the comments and even responding, and that can quickly become a mountain of work. Depending on the class size, as well as the length and number of readings assigned, it may not be possible for the instructor to read every single comment. Here are a couple tips to help you focus your engagement with the platform.
Filter for questions and starred comments, which can help you narrow it to comments that might require a response whether on the platform or in class.
Look at the most upvoted comments: if many students are drawn to a comment and you realize it is incorrect, you will want to make sure to address that.
Stay out of the conversation during the early stages of discussion, though you can scan through comments to get a sense of recurring themes or questions. Allow students to answer their peers’ questions to foster a conversation between students rather than with the professor.
Be upfront with students that you might not see every comment, encouraging them to tag you if they want to ensure you read something.
Here is a helpful guide on the Perusall blog on sifting through comments.
Unequal Labor and Collaborative Learning
While the form is different, this is a type of group work and students might offer resistance, thinking others will unjustly benefit from their hard work. There are a few strategies to mitigate both the abuse and the distrust and much of this goes back to setting the stage in class discussions early on.
- Lean into the idea of learning from each other’s ideas and approaches. In a US history class, encourage international students to make comparisons between what they read to the histories more familiar to them. In one class, a student posted definitions of unfamiliar words, which their classmates frequently found helpful.
- Encourage students to express their agreement with classmates, but remind them that, if they are being graded, that will not be sufficient to get full credit.
- Remind students that if they are using classmates’ ideas, they need to cite them, (in comments @Name) failure to do so constitutes plagiarism.
- If you are worried about bad feelings between students, consider making assignments anonymous (making sure students know they are anonymous to each other but not to you).
- By default, Perusall breaks up classes into groups of 20, and the application will create different groups for each assignment, but you can also create your own groups and assign readings accordingly. You may try creating set study groups that work more collaboratively together (for example each is assigned a number of terms from the study guide).
A final note, while the assignments in Perusall tend to simply be the readings you would normally assign and expect to be done before class, the format requires more work from most students (and even those who would have read and annotated diligently on their own, will likely put in even more work). Be careful with adding Perusall to a class without consideration for this extra labor.
Featured Image Credit: Elyssa Gage