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The Importance of Annotation

Posted by Jenny Brown on May 03, 2012 |

I remember being taught in school not to write in books, particularly because most books being used in my junior high and high school were school property. To write in them would be a defacement of that property, and probably give away a few answers to future users. Then, when I got to college, I entered a brave new world.  Not only was annotation allowed, it was encouraged. Buying schoolbooks for myself meant that they were mine to do with as I pleased – I could highlight and scribble on their pages to my heart’s content.

Typical college notesWhile I probably didn’t always make annotations that were to my best educational advantage, and I’ll admit there may have been a doodle or two, having the ability to annotate felt incredibly freeing. It also turns out that I was taking part in a process that is the recommended method for critical reading.

Harvard Library recommends annotation as one of “six reading habits to develop in your first year at Harvard.” The authors of the research guide “Interrogating Texts” know that critical reading is essential to academic success and intellectual growth, to retaining information and retaining it longer, and that annotation is a key part of the critical reading process. As the guide states, “Annotating puts you actively and immediately in a ‘dialogue’ with an author and the issues and ideas you encounter in a written text. It's also a way to have an ongoing conversation with yourself as you move through the text and to record what that encounter was like for you.”


In an article for the CollegeBoard, Nick Otten writes that annotation provides “a deeper initial reading and an understanding of the text that lasts.” Why? Because the reader is engaging in an evolving conversation with the author, which, as Otten says, is “much like having a teacher or storyteller with you in the room.” The reader is able to ask questions, argue, mark important points, write down definitions, and identify passages requiring more study.

We at StudySync couldn’t agree more about the benefits of annotation. Annotation makes the reader an active participant in the flow of the text. StudySync’s Director of Education, Hal Ober, points out that it is essentially “butting in.” He explains:

You’re meeting a text with your own text. Challenging, connecting, appreciating, guffawing, amending, adding. Above all, you’re making the text your own. In a way, this information, this story, belongs to you.

And if you’re intending to write something about the text, of course, your annotations can be an invaluable guide, a pathway to your own writing. WAY better than SparkNotes or CliffNotes. They’re YourNotes.

For these reasons, StudySync implemented its own in-program annotation tool, allowing students who are engaged in reading a fiction or nonfiction text with StudySync to mark up that text, even when reading it on a screen. When students select a section of the excerpt, they are given the options to save a highlight (just as if it were drawn in with a traditional yellow neon marker) and to add their own note.


StudySync's Annotation Tool

StudySync's annotation tool interface.

Saved annotations are collected in a toolbar at the bottom of the excerpt and can be accessed there at any time, or by clicking on the highlighted text. Teachers may also view a student’s saved annotations, to better understand how a student is reading a text and preparing to write, and many have used the tool themselves to model good methods of annotation to their classes.


StudySync's Annotation Toolbar

StudySync's annotation toolbar, which collects all saved annotations at the bottom of the excerpt.

StudySync’s aim is to foster critical reading and writing skills, providing students with the abilities necessary to work their way through a variety of texts, from the simple to the complex. Annotation is critical to this process and our users have confirmed how important the annotation tool is to the StudySync user experience.  For any level of reader, this tools aids in comprehension and analysis.

After all, if a high level of critical engagement with texts is expected of AP students and is the recommended way for college students to succeed, shouldn’t the methods for deeper critical reading be learned and practiced in middle school and high school? At StudySync, we are helping students to do just that.

Photo credit: Aimee Kaufman

Categories: Teachers, Technology, Web-based Learning