Perusall and Classroom Community

Sent on behalf of Dr. Alisa Wade, Assistant Professor of History and READI Equity Fellow.

Each time I open our Research in Equity, Antiracism, Diversity and Inclusion (READI) hub’s page on teaching instruction, I’m reminded of bell hooks’ powerful quote from Teaching to Transgress. “As a classroom community,” hooks wrote, “our capacity to generate excitement is deeply affected by our interest in one another, in hearing one another’s voices, in recognizing one another’s presence.”  

Finding ways to build a sense of community in our classrooms—and fostering a safe and accessible learning space for students from a wide array of diverse backgrounds, experiences, identities, and needs—becomes critical to encouraging student success. At the same time, though, this process can feel daunting: especially when taking variations in the sizes of our classes, the unique needs of students, or even disciplinary conventions into consideration. I want to highlight one digital tool that I’ve found to be exceptionally useful in promoting active learning and reading, and, in turn, helping to foster dynamic discussion among a wider array of students in the classroom: Perusall.  

Perusall is a free platform for collaborative, social reading and annotation. It integrates with and can be accessed through our learning management systems, making it easy for students to open through an embedded link and syncing grades back to the class gradebook. Once classes are set up in Perusall, instructors designate materials to assign and design assignments around them (for some examples of how you might do this, see this library guide from Brandeis University). Instructors can choose to leave these assignments ungraded, grade them individually, or use and adapt Perusall’s automatic grading rubric for assessment. 

What makes Perusall so useful for building classroom community and contributing to equitable and inclusive pedagogy? 

Perusall enables faculty to assign a diverse array of material, at low or no cost to students. Faculty can create assignments from Perusall’s repository of existing textbooks and other readings, which does typically require students to purchase materials; but they can also upload their own PDFs covered by fair use guidelines, or channel materials that don’t meet those requirements through Perusall’s Copyright Clearance system (though students do pay a small fee for this process). Instructors can also draw on Open Educational Resources (OER) or link to other forms of digital media—podcasts, YouTube videos, or even open access online textbooks—for free, enabling students to engage with and annotate a wide selection of content representing a variety of mediums and facilitating creative approaches in the classroom (for more information on finding and selecting OER or affordable educational materials, see our Chico Affordable Learning Solutions (CAL$) program). 

It also helps build a sense of community (even in large courses!) and generates discussion inside and outside the classroom. In bigger classes, instructors can create smaller groups that carry over the course of the semester, encouraging students to get to know each other through their comments and annotations and interact in ways that are often difficult in large lecture halls. In smaller seminars, instructors can instead encourage the class to interact as a whole. It works well for in-person courses and can serve as a helpful tool for flipped classrooms, but as Professors Julie Lazzara and Virginia Clinton-Lisell have demonstrated, it is also incredibly effective in online or hybrid courses. And, it functions well across disciplines (see recent studies from the fields of biology, engineering, organic chemistry, philosophy, physics, political science, and psychology, for starters). 

Finally, Perusall also helps enhance student engagement with assigned class materials and address equity gaps in the classroom. Students are empowered, as individuals and collectively, to take ownership of readings and other content by asking and answering questions, making comments, annotating, and upvoting each other’s submissions. Instructors can easily see which portions are confusing to students and can answer any questions students might have as they work. This is particularly useful because academic reading can seem like such an intimidating undertaking for first year students, first generation students, and students for whom English isn’t their first language. Furthermore, a recent study in the Journal for Multicultural Educationcorroborates the impact of Perusall’s open annotation system on fostering inclusive and equitable pedagogy in the classroom and empowering those who frequently feel silenced—students of color, women, nonbinary students, and others from historically minoritized backgrounds—to confidently share their ideas. 

For more details and tips for getting started, see our campus Perusall support page