This is an Eval Central archive copy, find the original at danawanzer.com
This semester, I started using Perusall for all my assigned
readings in my evaluation course. In this course, students are often learning
for the first time what evaluation is while at the same time working with a
local organization to design an evaluation for them. There is a lot of ground
to cover while simultaneously giving them enough time to work with their
What is Perusall?
Perusall is a collaborative
reading application. Students and instructors read articles or websites or
watch videos on the app and can comment chunks of text or time stamps in the
video. These comments—or annotations, as they’re called on Perusall—can have
simple text formatting, code snippets, emojis, images, links, and videos. Then other
students or instructors can reply to that comment to make it a thread or
conversation. Comments can be upvoted, and annotations that are questions are
automatically recognized and other students can indicate they’d like the answer
to this question too. In that way, the scoring is a bit “gamified” to encourage
high quality annotations that others find useful or insightful.
Helpfully, the Perusall platform is free for students,
instructors, and educational institutions. Although I do not use a textbook for
this course, students can purchase their textbooks through Perusall. This would
be problematic at our institution since we do textbooks via rentals to students
to balance textbook costs across students. However, I do not plan on using this
platform (yet) with my undergraduate students and I currently do not use
textbooks with my graduate students.
Why use Perusall?
After seeing a demonstration of Perusall by Eric Mazur, I
was hooked. This made reading fun, engaging, and not so lonely of a process. During
my first year of graduate school I did not quite know how to read effectively,
and I imagine most of my students feel much the same way. Perusall helps students learn to read complicated
texts together. They ask questions, they make comments, and I can monitor and
contribute to the conversation to keep everyone on track.
As a result, this year’s cohort seems to have grasped what
evaluation is far quicker than last year’s cohort. To be fair, there could be many
other possible explanations; there are some differences in the make-up of the
cohorts or perhaps my teaching has improved from last year to this year.
However, personally I think Perusall has made a world of a difference. Here are
some benefits that I have noticed:
- I can save time in class by focusing on
activities applying what they learned in the readings rather than
discussing the readings themselves. We sometimes go over the readings in class,
but this has freed me up to focus on other things which has also helped them
grasp evaluation much more quickly. However, note that this will take them more
time out of class and to plan the workload accordingly.
- Students can read at any time but still
benefit from reading “with” peers and me. I encourage students to check
into Perusall once a day to catch up on the latest conversation. They also get
notified when someone tags them or responds to their conversation. As a result,
this does not become a task that students just read and complete. It also leads
to more conversation than the typical LMS discussion board provides. If this
were an entirely asynchronous course, this would be highly beneficial to
promote student-to-student and student-to-instructor interaction.
- The conversations we are having are deeper
than most conversations I ever experienced in class-wide or small-group discussions
during graduate school. Even if the entire class period gave time to have a
discussion, it was never enough to really get to everything. This lets us
review and discuss every piece of the reading: not only the big major take-aways
but also some of the nitty gritty or fun tidbits.
- Although I can guide the conversation,
students can also take leadership of the conversation. Sometimes I will start
conversations to get students thinking about the major take-aways of the
articles. However, I’ve done this less and less as the semester has progressed
because I’ve found they are grasping the take-aways themselves better over
time. They can also introduce new and exciting conversations that I had not
even thought of myself!
What are the potential downsides?
I think there are a few, and some that are specific to my particular
situation, but overall I think the benefits above outweigh the costs.
First, this is going to take students more time to complete.
Average reading time per article ranges from 30-90 minutes per student, and I assign
multiple articles a week. I had to adjust my out-of-class activities
accordingly. However, I also teach another course these students take and, except
for the first few weeks, there is far less reading in that other course.
However, I think the benefits of understanding the reading more deeply outweigh
the costs here.
Second, it adds another thing students must learn. Currently
students have to learn our LMS, Microsoft teams (for online class meetings),
and now also Perusall. That can be an added challenge. However, I think the
benefits of a platform that provides a better reading experience outweigh the
Third, my institution will not enable the integration into
our LMS. My hope is if more faculty begin adopting this program, they will
investigate an integration in the future, but for now this becomes a separate
website that students have to check regularly. Part of the issue is that
Perusall will not meet individually with institutions to ensure accessibility
regulations are being met; instead, they provide a website with detailed information
because they are faculty-run and supported and are a free platform.
How can I get started?
I recommend watching a previously recorded webinar or signing
up for an upcoming webinar here. If
you’d like to read research about using Perusall, check out their list of
research here. Otherwise, create an
account, create a course, add your readings and students, and get started!
There is plenty of support
content to help you get started and manage Perusall.