How to Get Students to Read Like Historians with Perusall


For many students, completing readings before class entails looking at every word and hoping that they understood and retain the most important information. In its most basic implementation, Perusall offers a way for instructors to ensure that students are doing the readings and engaging them to a minimum. Students annotate, ask questions, and discuss the materials directly on the platform. The utility of Perusall is obvious in general education survey courses, in which getting students to do the reading is an especially common problem. However, this simple grade-based motivation is not Perusall’s most valuable contribution to a class. The deeper level of engagement and active reading it facilitates is an even greater asset.

For history courses, Perusall is an especially useful tool because it can guide students through different types of sources and modes of reading. Furthermore, Perusall enables the reading process to shift from an entirely individual exercise, of which students may or may not see the benefits, to a guided, collaborative one, with clear objectives in mind.

It is important for students to understand how they will be graded, so spend time learning the algorithm and deciding how you will use the assessment tools available in Perusall. For more information, see my companion piece: “A Beginner’s Guide to the Perusall Assessment.”

This post will focus on ways to use Perusall specifically for the different types of sources we assign in history courses: textbooks, primary sources, and scholarly sources for research.

Assigning and Assessing Different Types of Historical Reading

While you can simply have a “Perusall” category in your course grade distribution and use a single grading algorithm, differentiate the assessment according to type of source used in history classrooms: textbooks and scholarly sources assigned for content, primary sources, and scholarly sources assigned for research. For example, grade textbook sources on completion but assess primary sources based on quality annotations. This approach requires clear instructions.

One way to help students distinguish the types of sources is to separate the grades so that “reading assignments” are not a stand-alone category but are tied to the other aspects of the course they work to scaffold. For example, textbook readings might be part of other content-focused assignments such as quizzes or exams, while primary source assignments would be part of participation, and research readings part of the final project grade. Because, as of writing this, you cannot create assignment groups in Perusall, this approach unfortunately requires some logistical tinkering on your part.

I have found the easier option is to set the Perusall gradebook to weigh the assignments differently: secondary sources, assigned for content, are pass/fail (you can set the threshold points for credit) and worth less in the final score (for example 5 points each), while primary sources, assigned for analysis, earn grade and worth more (for example 10 points each). If you have Perusall connected to your LMS with a single average, these differences will be built into the final score.

Textbooks and Scholarly Sources for Content

Depending on the course, discussion may not be what you are looking for when you assign textbook readings. Some readings that you assign primarily give students the foundational knowledge necessary for further inquiry. For these, you may set up the grade algorithm to focus much more on active reading time and reading to the end, and less on annotations, or using pass/fail grades.

Checking Understanding

Because Perusall highlights annotations that include questions, instructors can have students focus on understanding the readings and making notes where they do not understand something. Encourage other students to answer questions and highlight strong answers: the application will mark these as upvoted by the instructor and draw students’ attention to them.

Having reading assignments due a day before class enables instructors to go over student responses before meeting and address points that require further clarification.


A relatively new option, quizzes are a useful tool if you want to check comprehension. Create a quiz in the library and then add it to an assignment. Keep in mind that as it stands, students will be able to go back and forth between the text and the quiz, so ask questions that take advantage of this.

Building a #Study Guide

How much do you expect students to retain from the readings? Which particular facts should they remember? If you use study guides, rather than giving them to students a week or two before an exam, give one at the beginning of each section as a plan of study with hashtags already associated with each term and question. As they read, instruct students to use the hashtags to mark important sections pertaining to the terms. This facilitates the understanding of key concepts in the first place as well as giving students tools to help them in pre-exam study.

Primary Sources

“Primary Sources” as a category is a peculiarity of historians, since the genres this includes, and therefore the approaches it requires, vary widely. We assign primary sources for students to get a sense of the language, modes of thought, or experiences of the past. The purpose of reading primary sources is generally not for students to agree or disagree with them, but the call to comment on readings often elicits such a response. To avoid this, use the student instructions in the assignment settings, which places your instructions at the top of each primary source. Guide the expectations for comments, whether you ask specific questions, require students to make connections to other readings or lectures, or discuss language.

Instructors might want to give general guidelines for how students should be engaging the primary sources in preparation for class discussion with general questions that are applicable to all sources.

  • How is it representative of a phenomenon described in class or other readings?
  • How does the author understand the events discussed?
  • How would the author relate to the others we are reading this week (or other weeks)?

Focusing the Conversation

To direct the conversation more actively, require students to answer specific questions. Use the comment feature to post questions throughout the text. These might be more comprehension oriented: How did Frederick Douglass answer his question “What to the Slave Is the Fourth of July?”? Or they might emphasize analysis of a highlighted section.

With this more directed approach, the grading algorithm cannot assess how well a student answered the assigned questions. Prepare to spend time reviewing students work before posting the grade.

Open Discussion

An advantage of Perusall over discussion boards is the possibility of a much more student-led discussion. Instructors might therefore prefer a less directed approach, in which students can make note of what strikes them.

Begin a course with a more guided discussion, and as students learn how to engage primary sources, let them take control of the conversation more.

Quizzes for Open Discussion and Focused Questions

A quiz can maintain the freedom of the discussion while bringing some focus to the assignment. Write questions that bring the conversation back to the desired topic, and force students to write their own answers.

Create a Single Assignment

Instructors often assign several related primary sources at once. In Perusall, collate them into a single assignment per session rather than one assignment per reading. On a course management level, this has the advantage of having fewer distinct assignments (10 assignments/week will feel overwhelming even if they are only a page each). Presenting them as a corpus will help students make connections between them.

Scholarly Sources for Research

Teaching to Read for Research

Perusall can help scaffold the process of reading scholarly articles for research purposes. In a freshman research seminar, I have found it helpful to have all the students share a basic research question, for example: How is World War II commemorated? Over the course of the semester, their research would get more specific, but this allows us to have a lot of common ground and room for debate as their research proceeds.

I started with a textbook reading so they could get an overview of the history of the war, but the discussion in Perusall focused on the questions of memory: “Since we are especially interested in memory, as you read and comment, think about the parts of the history of WW2 we remember more, and which seem forgotten. What parts of the war pose problems in terms of memory?” Since this was before they had selected their topics, part of the discussion revolved around possibilities for research.

Next, students used Perusall to annotate a chapter from a monograph on war and memory, which laid out the basics of memory studies and gave the theoretical framework for their research. The chapter exemplified historiography, modeling how a scholar situates themselves relative to other work. An in-class discussion preceded the Perusall assignment; we talked about what they should be reading for: looking at arguments, placement in the field, and sources used. How was it different from their reading of a textbook?

Screenshot of assignment settings with instructions for students. Credit: author.

Once they had selected their topics and done preliminary research on their topic, I reassigned this reading with the following prompt:

Look over the different theories of memory that Messenger lays out again but thinking of your specific memory problem. Which term do you think is most helpful for thinking about your problem?
Explain the term and apply the principles of that term to your topic.

Another option would be to reassign it as a quiz.

Individualized Assignments

Most often, research-focused sources will be different for each student’s particular project. But Perusall can still be helpful as an accountability tool for the research process, from the gathering of sources through reading and re-reading. Students can upload documents to the Perusall Library, which helps instructors guide students through their first research papers as they learn how to engage with scholarship. Scaffolding the research process in Perusall reduces the number of formal assignments for a class while individualizing the readings unique to each student’s particular project.

Soon after they have chosen their topic, I give students a “Research Needs” assignment where they work on determining what facts they need to discover and distinguishing facts-based questions from interpretative ones. They upload and begin reading scholarly sources in Perusall. In their annotations, they are asked to distinguish between data, source-based material, and context from the author’s arguments and interpretation. This process distinguishes the skills students need as well: collecting information versus engaging in argument.

You can use the “differentiated assignment” option in Perusall. Make sure all the readings for the assignment are in a library folder, you will then select which students are assigned which text.

To focus their reading on how they will engage this text, instruct students to highlight relevant examples and comment with draft sentences that might be included in their research paper: “According to so-and-so, y event caused x.”

As they read more sources, invite them to write about how the different authors engage each other, and how their arguments connect.

Quizzes can be useful here. example, questions like these convey what information is relevant to the students’ final projects:

  • What is the specific topic of the article?
  • What is the author’s argument?
  • On what sources is the research based?
  • How does your research build on this work?

For research, Perusall is a helpful way to get students to start verbalizing ideas outside of the word processor and can also facilitate seeing the shape of the scholarly conversation and how their work fits into it.

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