Annotate the Syllabus
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Annotation is the addition of a note to a text. Syllabi are important texts in the lives of educators and learners. Yet a syllabus is an educator’s draft vision of teaching yet enacted, a preamble to learning yet accomplished. To help learners read, make sense of, question, and discuss their course and learning, invite learners to annotate the syllabus. This activity is appropriate for online, hybrid, and face-to-face courses. This activity can occur both synchronously and asynchronously depending on the format of the course syllabus and the technology used for annotation. This activity is an informal, low-stakes means for students to connect with one another through their discussion of an important text – the syllabus.
First day or week of class.
As a reflective mid-term activity to adjust course activities, readings, and assignments for the remainder of the semester.
As a reflective end-of-term activity to document progress and learning, provide feedback, and make suggestions for future courses.
A syllabus, whether digital or print.
If your syllabus is a PDF, host the PDF via a course learning management system, online repository, or a website. You’ll need a link to your syllabus PDF.
If your syllabus is a Google doc, adjust the share settings so that students can comment. You’ll need a link to your syllabus doc.
If your syllabus is a blog post, you’ll need a link to the post.
If your syllabus is printed, ensure every learner has a print copy.
Determine and make accessible to learners a technology for annotation that is most appropriate to the format of your syllabus (see Tech requirements section, below).
Seed the syllabus with annotations to model both the content and process of this activity. For example, add an annotation to the course title, likely on the first page/top of syllabus that says something like: “Welcome to our syllabus! As a working document, you are very welcome to ask questions, share reactions and confusions, suggest revisions, note errors/copyedits, share thoughts and strategies, provide peer-to-peer advice.” These annotation “seeds” are akin to discussion prompts, can encourage informal observations and reactions, and elicit peer-to-peer discussion about course content as directly tethered to the syllabus.
After seeding your syllabus with introductory notes, share your syllabus with your students. If, for example, your syllabus is a Google doc, share the doc link with your learners via a course announcement, post, or learning management system.
Learner annotation can happen over a set period of time (like a few days or the first week of the semester), and may occur either synchronously or asynchronously depending upon the technology used for social annotation.
Educator response to learner annotations can vary: Specific questions may require an immediate and clarifying response; some observations may not require an educator response and can be productive sites of peer-to-peer dialogue; and when multiple annotations are similar, one response may sufficiently address a topic or concern.
As learners annotate together, encourage meta-cognitive observations about how social annotation practices may be relevant to other course activities, such as close reading and textual analysis, the importance of sharing rough-draft thinking, and collaborative meaning-making.
Annotating the course syllabus is an intentionally flexible activity.
Synchronous reading and social annotation may occur in an hour.
Asynchronous approaches to social annotation may span a few days, a week, and may also be revisited throughout a semester.
Adaptations and examples
However this activity is planned and facilitated, technology should not become a barrier to annotation and discussion. Use familiar technology. Annotating a syllabus does not necessitate that you or your students learn a new tool or set of technical skills. The goal is to annotate, to ask questions, share thoughts, and start a discussion about learning together.
Annotation is an important strategy for discussing specific syllabus statements that reflect pressing needs and social circumstances (irrespective of discipline), such as Sara Goldrick-Rab’s Basic Needs Syllabus Clause, Brandon Bayne’s Adjusted Syllabus statement, and most recently Chris Jones’ How to be OK statement.
If your syllabus is a PDF, annotate using the free social annotation tool Hypothesis.
If your syllabus is a Google doc, annotate using the comment feature of Google docs.
If your syllabus is a blog post, annotate using in-line comments (as with the blogging platform Medium) or using a social annotation tool like Hypothesis (great for Ghost and WordPress blog posts).
If your syllabus is paper, print/share as large posters for annotation using markers.