A Quick Check for Comprehension in Canvas Using Hypothes.is

I’m sure most of us can relate to this teaching situation: you create a new assignment that you’re excited about, and you can’t wait to see what students create in response, and the results are . . .  disappointing. The responses don’t rise to the level you were hoping for or only scratch the surface of the concept/problem you thought everyone understood. Or, you reuse an assignment that last semester’s students performed well on and were excited about, but it falls flat with this semester’s students, or they perform poorly on it. If it seems like only a few students are struggling, there could obviously be many reasons for those struggles, and in those case, I opt to talk to the student to see how, or if, I can help them.  If, however, many students have this problem, we might look inward, and ask ourselves: what’s wrong with my assignment? I explained the assignment several times, provided examples, and almost no one asked a question. Despite the care, thought and time I put into developing this assignment, maybe I should give up on it, change it, or not teach it again.

The last time this happened to me, I asked my class, what happened? A couple of students said that life had happened, illness, work, something else unexpected. But after a few minutes that discussion petered out, and I asked, “Can someone else share their experience?” and one student somewhat sheepishly raised her hand and said, “I didn’t really understand what you wanted us to do.” Suddenly, the room was full of nodding, yeahs, and me, neithers. Ah. So despite my carefully crafted, step by step directions, the majority of my students did not understand what I had asked them to do. Comprehension was just. not. happening.

If you’ve been in this situation, you might have asked, “If you didn’t understand, why didn’t you say so, ask a question, come to my office hours, send me an email?”, only to be met with a smile and a shrug. The reality for many of our students is that they just don’t have the time to come to office hours. They’re busy. I know, we’re busy, too. But, many of our students have so much going on with multiple jobs, family obligations, struggles to meet their basic human needs, that they really don’t have the luxury of free time.

So, this semester, I tried something new. I’ve been participating in a pilot of the annotation software, hypothes.is’s new plug-in for Canvas. I’ve written about online annotation tools, including hypothes.is previously, but now, with the Canvas integration, I’ve discovered a new use for it: checking student comprehension of an assignment before asking students to  complete the assignment. The hypothes.is plug-in works within Canvas, and can be used to annotate any OCR compliant text within Canvas, or any webpage link.

Here’s what I did, and how it turned out: I have an assignment on writing for the public sphere that I’ve used off and on for a few years. Some years, it’s gone fairly well, and others, less so. I’ve modified it, but haven’t wanted to give up on it completely because when students really engage with it, I’ve seen remarkable critical thinking displayed. When I posted the assignment sheet this semester, I also created a low stakes activity based on the assignment. I asked students to use hypothes.is to annotate the assignment sheet as follows:

Create at least five annotations. Your annotations should address: what you think the assignment is asking you to do, how you know it, any questions you may have (including unfamiliar vocabulary), and what challenges you anticipate having as you work on this assignment. You don’t have to have one annotation for each category; this is more of an exercise in making sure you understand what the assignment is asking you for, and making a plan to successfully complete it.

Reviewing their classmates’ annotations allowed students the chance to think about the assignment and plan for it ahead of time, and allowed me to clarify misconceptions and answer questions, all of which helped me set my students up for success. Additionally, students’ questions helped me see places where my assignment sheet needed clarification, even though at least one question (“What’s an op-ed?”) just made me feel old.

To use hypothes.is for your assignments, create your assignment as you normally would, but under Assignment Type, choose External Tool, click the Find bar, and scroll down to Hypothes.is. From there, you’ll just have to authorize hypothes.is to access your assignment.

How might you use an annotation app in, or out of, Canvas to help your students better understand your assignments?

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