Annotating Learning: Moving Past ‘You Didn’t Try’

When final projects are submitted, no one likes to believe that their students haven't “tried,” but sometimes it's hard to draw any other conclusion. Most of us work with at least a few (sometimes more) students whose papers are littered with errors. When we are faced with a large stack of homework submissions, it can be hard to look past crucial surface errors to find value in a student's thinking.

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When final projects are submitted, no one likes to believe that their students haven't “tried,” but sometimes it's hard to draw any other conclusion. Most of us work with at least a few (sometimes more) students whose papers are littered with errors. When we are faced with a large stack of homework submissions, it can be hard to look past crucial surface errors to find value in a student's thinking. Too often, we waver between tired dismissal of student work or reliance on long conferences to get to their misunderstandings. Since time and patience are limited for student and professor alike, we've turned to structured annotation to cut through the confusing errors and to force students to explain exactly how they've tried. 

Annotation focuses students on showing the degree to which they met the assignment and how they tried to do so. Annotation, in the various forms described below, has helped us target specific misunderstandings by giving students ways to show effort and intent. It can be used in any discipline and on papers and projects of various sorts. Assuming the rubric, checklist, or assignment description is clear, annotation pushes students to think in ways that many instructors simply don't have time to walk them through.

Structural markings 

As the first step toward transparency about what an assignment requires and what students are thinking, our students use structural markings such as underlines, circles, and brackets to note the places where they meet the requirements of the checklist or rubric. Students might bracket places where they gave credit to sources or underline each counterargument. Structural marking, intended to focus student attention on the strategies they might otherwise skim over, slows students down and forces them to build discipline-specific vocabulary and consider the content as a reader of their own work. 

We've found assigning specific kinds of markings can make challenging writing tasks more manageable. Specific marking tasks can be used to support a multistep process. For example, when annotating a topic sentence for a source summary paragraph, the student might bracket the source title and author's name, circle an appositive introducing author credentials, and underline the source's main point. We've found students accumulate marking strategies they find most helpful; we may not assign a previous marking task on a later assignment, but students still mention, if not go ahead and mark, the move they want us to notice. 

Structural annotations are most useful in the revision process—especially for students who struggle to know how to improve each draft. After students compare their draft to the grading checklist, they discover specific revision needs. For example, if they cannot find a voice marker or transition to annotate, they know they still need one. Structural markings ask students to designate what they've accomplished so far—but not why they did it or how to fix any issues.


In perhaps the most organized method of annotating, students revise their work and place numbered comments throughout their text that correspond with endnotes. In these endnote annotations, students explain how and why they are making changes, or give rationales for why they believe they met the assignment goals. Their endnote annotations are sometimes aspirational. Even in the face of errors, students can use endnotes to explain what they were trying to accomplish. When the professor's feedback replies to endnote annotation, the student's thought process becomes a valuable part of a conversation. Cheryl Hogue Smith provides more details on endnote annotating in the Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy, 53 (8). 

We still have writing conferences with students, but students take the lead. Instead of falling into responses indicative of learned helplessness, students can start a conference by voicing the thinking they've already done in their endnote annotations. 

Marginal notes 

Sometimes learning is messy, and marginal notes allow students to narrate how their writing meets the learning criteria in a less structured way. Often, students use marginal notes to show how they see elements in a paper relating to each other. 

In our classes, annotation isn't an assignment as much as an academic practice that students use between writing drafts or to model how they are thinking about an assignment. Once students are familiar with them, annotations provide a structure for doing the kind of thinking experienced writers and thinkers rely on. And, of course, annotation styles overlap, particularly in problem areas of a paper where markings, annotations, and reflections collide in telling ways, or in successful writing where a sentence might fulfill several assignment needs at once. 

At first, annotation may seem like extra work, but putting the emphasis on process celebrates student effort and makes grading criteria transparent. For underprepared students haunted by pervasive errors, annotations can be a welcome strategy for acknowledging all the ways they tried to meet assignment goals. For students who have wondered whether they have any control over their grades, annotation forces a familiarity with audience expectations and self-analysis that are often skipped.

Scaffolded annotations denote a step-by-step process that builds in complexity. A student might first use structural marking to identify the required concrete details. Then, to explain his thinking about how and why the details matter, he might make this marginal comment: “Details such as bright eyes, long applause, and surprising commotion contrast with the earlier lack of response and point toward the subject of my next paragraph.” We've found that scaffolded annotations help students make connections between what they are doing and how and why they intend to have readers experience the text in specific ways. 

In each form, annotation should give students the power to explain their intent—to themselves and their teachers. Even in the face of surface errors, students can explain what they were trying to do and why they thought it met the expectations. Annotations remind students that writing is hard work and teach us to value the effort that went into every move—even the incorrect ones. Even when students fail, they have new ways to interpret the event.

Marissa E. King and Karen Sheriff LeVan, Hesston College, Kansas,