Using Hypothesis in your classroom

Active reading is an essential skill for students to master, especially in higher education. Your students should not just be memorizing things, but synthesizing ideas with other ideas, including their own, to develop new concepts and deepen or problematize narratives already in play.

In the literature classroom, and in the writing classroom, active reading is the ground from which our pedagogy emerges. Analyzing a text means taking it apart, bit by bit, looking at each facet critically (rather than acquiescently) to understand it, and then putting it back together to create new insight. We teach students to ask questions of the text, to put it into a historical or critical or theoretical context, to consider the social or cultural work it’s doing, and more. This involves “marking up” or annotating the text–here are some examples I like to show my students, including Barack Obama’s revision notes, as well as my own annotations on things I teach:

Observational notes and questions (who is “the stranger”? who are “they” and “them”?) on a poem by Adrienne Rich
End leaves of one of my copies of Jane Austen’s Persuasion, showing how I gather themes, ask questions, and note key passages/motifs with page numbers.
Barack Obama’s revisions to the 2013 Inaugural Address. Photo credit: Official White House photo by Pete Souza.

My handwriting is nowhere near as tidy as Former President Obama’s, which is why I now grade everything online, unfortunately. But the point is visible: physically engaging with the text deepens your engagement with it. It helps you understand what you’re reading, it helps you remember it, and it helps you critique it. It even helps you enjoy it!

In this world of online teaching and etexts, how can we help our students engage with their materials? It’s easy to skim online–there are many studies about the difficulty of reading deeply via a screen, including the fragmentation of the experience (and the information). A 2014 study of college students found that, still, almost two-thirds of students actively preferred print, specifically for ease of use and the ability to take notes.

There are several tools out there that students can use to help connect to the etexts they’re reading, including Perusall and Hypothesis. I’m going to focus on Hypothesis here; if you want a good overview of Perusall, check out this review by Kate Koppy.

What is Hypothesis?

Hypothesis is a web-based social annotation tool that began in 2011 with the idea of “peer-reviewing the web.” It allows users to read and think together by marking up, responding to, and highlighting passages in a shared etext.

Hypothesis emerged as a browser extension, and it is still used by many in that capacity–you can install it in your own web browser, get a username/password, and annotate anything you find on the web–making it accessible either just to yourself, or to the world, or to a group you’re a part of. Some websites, like my project Literature in Context, have native integrations of Hypothesis.

With Hypothesis, users can not only create enotes but also tag enotes, format them with a WISIWYG interface, upload images or link to other websites, and reply to others.

Canvas has developed an integration with Hypothesis that enables faculty to create assignments (graded or ungraded) featuring social annotation (or individual annotation, as I’ll discuss below), too. Students do not need to install anything, and they don’t need an account, because it all goes through the LMS.

How can you use it?

Faculty use Hypothesis in a variety of ways, but it usually involves “marking up” the text you’re working with–a website or a PDF. (I do not think this works with etextbooks, because they are typically behind paywalls, but if you know otherwise please comment!) Here are some ideas:

  • Day one: have students mark up your syllabus together! You can prompt students with a scavenger hunt type game.
  • Provide readings to students and allow them to individually keep track of their notes online.
  • Grade students for their active reading in a done/not done (or other) framework.
  • Provide reading prompts by annotating the text yourself, and having students reply to them.
  • Use it for workshop–have students annotate essay drafts.
  • Have students read a project assignment page and ask questions.
  • In class, ask students to find examples of X for discussion.
  • Put students in groups to read the material together, either remotely or in class.
  • Identify unknown words or important concepts, whether just through highlighting or through annotation (define the unknown words, create paraphrases of key concepts).
  • Ask questions of the text or compile “noticings.” This is especially useful for literary texts.
  • Other ideas? Put them in the comments!

How does it integrate with Canvas?

I’ll not go into specifics here–I’m assuming you just want to know how to use it in your classes! Basically, you create an assignment, which is graded or ungraded as you like, and use an “external integration” for submission. See the session handout above, or the instructions below, for our workshop.

1. Find a webpage you want students to read or a PDF, online, not behind a paywall. Keep it open in your browser.

2. Go into your Canvas course–doesn’t matter which. Just don’t publish it if you don’t want your students to see the assignment.

3. Go to Assignments.

4. Create a new assignment. Under “Submission Type,” select “External Tool” and click “Find.” Select “Hypothesis” from the alphabetical list.

5. After you hit “SELECT,” another box will popup to allow you to select your “Assignment details.” Note that you can enter the URL of a webpage or a PDF; a PDF you’ve already uploaded to Canvas; or even a Google Drive/OneNote doc. For now, select “Enter URL of web page or PDF”.

6. Copy and paste the URL to the webpage or the online PDF you found already into the textbox provided and click “SUBMIT.”

7. Another detail screen will appear asking if this is to be a group assignment. For now, don’t check group assignment; just click “CONTINUE.”

8. Click all the way out and back to your assignment. You’ll notice that a link is now visible in your “Submission Type” section that starts with “….” Save and publish your assignment. That’s all on your side! Take a look at my complete assignment, here:

9. This is the page the students will see in a hypothesis assignment, unless you’ve opted to open it in a new tab/window. Note that I am seeing a student comment because I’m the teacher and can see all comments, and this is a full class annotation assignment. (That is, I haven’t given it to individual students or to a small group.) Click “Student View” from the upper right hand corner.

10. The first time a student logs on to a Hypothesis-enabled assignment in your class, they’ll be prompted to authorize the tool. As the Test Student, you see what your students will see. Click “Authorize,” and “Authorize” again.

11. Let’s add a comment as a student to see what they’ll go through. Read through the document, and find a place to highlight. See if you can do it. Then, find a place to annotate, and add something. Be sure to look at the options in hypothesis!

12. What will you see when you “grade” the assignment? Leave the Student View, and take a look! You can use rubrics, and you can interact directly on the hypothesis article.

Group Hypothesis Assignments

Let’s explore doing a small group or an individually-assessed hypothesis assignment. Note that hypothesis defaults to whole-class annotation. This means everyone can see everyone else’s annotations, which is good in many circumstances (especially for classes under 10). But you may want to have students do this work on their own, or in small groups. To do either of these, you’ll need to create groups in Canvas.

1. Go to PEOPLE in Canvas. Select GROUP SET. I’ve created a small group set of 5 students each (these 5 students can see and interact with their peers’ annotations) and a group set of 1 student each (for individual private hypothesis assignments).

2. Create a group. Here are what mine look like:

3. Go to Assignments and into the Hypothesis assignment you just created. Let’s associate it with a group! Edit the assignment settings.

4. Note that you’ll have to re-do the links in Submission Type. Click “Find,” “Hypothesis,” and then put the URL back in as you did above. Check the “Group assignment” box, and note that the groups you’ve created will now appear.

5. Select “Continue” and go back out to the Canvas assignment. Save/publish it. Now, it will be available to students in their groups (whether that’s a group of 1 or of 5).

Let’s take the rest of the workshop time for you to play with hypothesis, or discuss with your neighbor. What else can you imagine doing with hypothesis? If you have questions, let me know and I’ll come over to help!

Challenges to keep in mind

You can assign a due date in your Canvas assignment, but students can go into the assignment hypothesis link and add comments as long as the assignment is available. The first comment a student posts will trigger “submission” on the Canvas assignment. Just FYI.

This is VERY easy for students to use, but it does require them to initialize it the first time it’s used in your Canvas course. Have students do this in class together, and they can help each other with it if there are questions, or just show and tell on day one. If you do show-and-tell, be sure you are not using groups with student view, because the Test Student won’t be added to a group. Instead, create a dummy assignment assigned to everyone, publish it, and then view it as Test Student. That way, you can show students exactly what they’ll see. Be sure to “reset student view” if you’ve already authorized hypothesis as a student!

Hypothesis is unable, at this point, to allow annotation on images or video, though they are working on it. You can only annotate websites or text that has been OCR’d.

If you have the whole class annotating a specific text, it can get very cluttered. Hypothesis is best for smaller groups or individuals, which means groups of 1.

You cannot “revise” an existing hypothesis link.

The process for putting it into Canvas assignments for your students is a little cumbersome, but not by much.

With Perusall, you can have the integration auto-grade your assignments, but this isn’t a possibility in Hypothesis–which I think is a good thing, because auto-grading is dependent on number of words, not content of thought. Students can identify busywork!

And remember, in group or public annotations, power is always in play; some students may be uncomfortable commenting publicly (even within the “public” of your class only), and you should be aware of aggressions both macro and micro in this environment, as you would in any other environment.

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