December 7th, 2015

Built-in Self-Assessment: A Case for Annotation


online student on laptop

If we want students to be critical thinkers, we must routinely and explicitly give them structured practice opportunities to critically examine their own thinking. Squeezing two or three metacognitive activities into a hectic semester teaches students that such reflection is only for special occasions. Rather, student self-evaluation should be a daily course routine.

As an alternative to time-consuming, discrete, self-reflective assignments, we’ve turned to annotation as a built-in flexible routine to bolster any stage of the learning process. Used as a companion to new skills or assignments, annotation helps students see how they are meeting assignment goals, make plans for improvement, and create a narrative of growth. The results of annotation as a classroom routine are students with self-evaluative habits that reach beyond our courses and assignments.

Here are a few of the reasons that annotation as a built-in flexible routine helps shift the ways students think and behave:

Annotation clarifies grading criteria

Faculty all wish that students read their assignments more carefully, but sometimes students flounder with how to clarify murky expectations. We routinely ask our students to annotate with structural markings how their work measures up to the grading checklist or learning objectives. On rough drafts, our students might underline, for example, the parts of the thesis that give a sense of organization or bracket where they’ve signaled another author’s ideas. As they toggle back and forth between the assignment’s expectations and the places they annotate their work, they find specific areas of misunderstanding. The primary goal of annotation is to improve self-regulation and reflection, but grading criteria become more accessible as students reconcile their work with teacher expectations.

Annotation positions students as choice makers

Too often, our students freeze in the face of revision, but an annotation-supported comparison between the draft and grading checklist jump-starts their thinking. To push our students to reflect on themselves as choice makers and to begin revision from a proactive stance, we require students to explain in marginal comments or correspondingly numbered endnotes why they included a specific idea or how examples match up with the assignment’s overall focus. Cheryl Hogue Smith argues that such endnotes lead students to “learn for themselves” as they reflect and assess their choices (2010). By going through the effort of explaining why they use a particular phrase or word, students clarify their intentions and consider options they otherwise might not.

For example, when a student marks up and comments on three required evidence examples for an op-ed assignment on light pollution, she realizes all three examples involve risks for animals and insects, which doesn’t match her thesis. Her numbered end comment explains her plan to include in the next draft the impact of light pollution on the human psyche. Without annotation as a decision-making lens, such self-awareness might have been glossed over and the “three pieces of evidence” requirement might have been checked off prematurely. Instead, with built-in self-assessment, she generates an improvement plan. By annotating, students notice the areas that still need work, consider options, and develop a revision plan.

Annotation reinforces course ideas

An emphasis on self-evaluation enhances course content. Whether students are developing opinions about a topic for the first time or grappling to explain a contradiction in their thinking, annotation offers sideline commentary clarifying student understanding of course goals. Our students will often refer to past assignments or lectures to make the case for choices as they annotate.

Annotation practice keeps students thinking about course goals. In a class session focused on audience awareness, the author of the light pollution op-ed combs her draft for specific places where she invokes audience concerns and realizes through annotation that she appeals only to city dwellers. In a corresponding endnote, she identifies a specific course text she will use to invoke a rural audience’s concerns as well.

Rather than forging blindly on to the next declaration, students are held accountable for their learning by routine annotation. They must explain how and why their work meets course goals. When a sociology student makes the case that an advertising image challenges sexist norms but can’t explain why, she is forced to reflect on her learning needs. For teacher and student alike, annotation serves as a pause button to celebrate and deepen learning.

Annotation incites growth mindset narratives

Prepared with annotation-driven reflection, students who previously waited passively to be judged learn instead to present themselves as experts on their own decision-making and effort. Students become their own advocates because they know what they were trying to do even when they fail to do it successfully.

As students annotate what they’ve learned, they tell their own stories of learning as a process. Attention turns from fear of failure to communicating incremental progress toward intended rhetorical moves. While extensive annotations do not necessarily mean students get the grades they hope for, the conversations they start at least remove the mystery of inaccessible grading standards, place the focus on student effort, and position students in a growth mindset.

Reference: Hogue Smith, C. (2010) “Diving in Deeper”: Bringing basic writers’ thinking to the surface. Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy, 53(8), 668-676.

Karen Sheriff LeVan and Marissa King teach and wonder at Hesston College (Hesston, Kansas) as faculty members in the English and education departments and as directors of First-Year Experience.

  • Perry Shaw

    Although I have not used the annotation approach given by Drs LeVan and King, I have found that undergraduate students produce far more thoughtful work when they have clear parameters / check lists against which they can prepare their work.
    For those familiar with the concept of "situational learning" such detailed direction is needed for less mature students who hopefully with time can move beyond the need for detailed "scaffolding" to being able to self-regulate in a more mature pattern.
    Thanks to Karen and Marissa for providing some meaningful tools for developing metacognitive skills in our students.

  • Pito Salas

    Need a reference to what the specific technique of "Annotation" actually is!

    • Diane Gregory

      I agree Pito.

  • Diane Gregory

    Not sure what you mean by Annotation. I know what an Annotated Bibliography is but not sure what you mean in this context. Please clarify.

    • Marissa King

      Thanks for your responses!

      Maha, Diane, Pito, and Jeff: We agree that some background on annotation would be a helpful supplement to this article.

      Perhaps the easiest start is to differentiate the annotation we’re talking about from the more familiar reading annotation. The main point of self-annotation is for students to self-assess their own writing. The annotations clarify to themselves and to us how they fulfill the rubric elements or the grading checklist.

      We recommend reading the Hogue Smith piece cited at the bottom of our article. She focuses on annotation during the revision process.

  • Jeff Boggs

    An actual example of what an annotated student assignment looks like, coupled with a rubric or checklist, would be a wonderful supplement. In any case, and especially if someone can provide a definition of annotation in this context (so I know I'm not butchering the author's intention), I'll see about working this into a group project for next semester.

    • Marissa King

      Thanks for your response, Jeff. We require annotation in a couple of different ways. At times, we use an annotation guide that accompanies our rubric. For example, we might have students bracket the places where students explain the credibility of the authors they cite. At other times, we ask students to use marginal notes to explain how they think they’ve met the rubric criteria. The important part is that students are explaining where, how, and to what extent they meet the bar of excellence.

      • Carol Thomson

        So would it be similar to a writing respondent who 'questions'/ acts as a conversationalist when EVALUATING/ assessing a piece of student writing – say, using Track Changes – except that the student is doing this work now? Track Changes, as a tool could be used for this, not so?

        • Marissa King

          Good point, Carol. I think you’re exactly right that annotation positions the student to be a critical reader of their own writing. We’ve used track changes with comments like Hogue Smith describes as well as the old fashioned handwritten notes.

  • Tim Michael

    Perry, I agree that undergrads (and some of my more recent grad students!) need a checklist of deliverables. Self-reflection and commentary is wonderful if students have the basics in hand, but many don't, and writing in our functional area courses needs a bit more structure. I can see how this is a healthy idea (if it means what I think it means) but like journaling may be something that is better fit to a class on the writing process itself.

  • Maha Hassan

    Yeah, I side Diane, and Pito in asking for clarification for the Annotation you followed with your students. Is it a kind of rubric or what kind of system or routine do you follow? Is it a worksheet that can be referred to like a rubric?

    • Karen_S_LeVan

      An article of ours published in Teaching Professor last Sept/Oct “Annotated Learning: Moving Past ‘You Didn’t Try’” goes into more detail and gives specific examples from student work as well.

      As a place to start, we use the following three ways to ask students to annotate their work:
      1) Structured markings like circles, brackets, numbers, etc.
      2) Numbered endnotes which correspond with rubric elements
      3) Marginal comments

      Each of these approaches requires some kind of rubric with which to compare their work.
      Students often end up doing a combination of annotating strategies and sometimes we assign specific kinds of annotations.

      Here’s the link to the article we mention above, although we acknowledge that you need a subscription in order to read the full article:

      • Jeff Boggs

        Thank you kindly!

  • actualham

    For an example of what this could look like (since apparently the article didn't think this was important), check this out:

    • Jeff Boggs


  • Terri Jenkins

    Great article. Thanks

  • You can direct students to use the Review functionality in MS Word for this and to submit their papers with the comments left in place. Then the marker can reply to the student's own comments and explain whether or not the thought process was correct and met the rubric. This could potentially open up some great dialogue between marker and students and generate great learning.