10 Great Ways to Annotate Resources

By Christine Scherer


Many online classes provide resources as a weekly, no-nonsense bibliography, a chain of citations. It is an efficient, time-tested way of presenting resources, and there is some benefit to letting students forge their own reading path through them.

But it can also be intimidating. As a student, how do I know which are the longest? The densest? The most relevant to my research interests? Available in multiple formats?

In an on-ground class, it is common lecture practice to contextualize the week’s readings. Most professors are familiar with phrases like, “Next week, we’ll be reading a dense work of theory. It’s tough going, but it’s well worth it!” or “There are three readings for next week; the second is the most important one, and it’s pretty conversational, so I think you’ll enjoy it.”

In an online class, it can be easy to forget to include that context in your announcements, and it can be time-consuming to do in the spur of the moment. So why not annotate your resources during development? Providing students with your opinion, suggestions for how to read and focus, or even gamifying the reading for bonus points can all help increase engagement and ensure that students are reading and watching what they should.

Plus, you’ll hit Quality Matters Standard 4.2 (“Both the purpose of instructional materials and how the materials are to be used for learning activities are clearly explained”) without even trying!

1. Tease the resource.

Your students are more likely to engage with a resource if you talk it up. If the resource you’re providing excites you, show it!

On a video clip: This is one of my favorite resources. I’ve used it with everyone from freshmen to graduate students, and they have praised how clearly it describes the topic while still being engaging. Check it out!

2. Call out a specific section.

Ideally, you want your students to read or watch everything you assign; realistically, will it happen? Your students are likely working adults with full-time jobs and families, and reading for your class may come second to other priorities.

If students can’t find the time to read an article from start to finish, it is helpful to identify an important section they can focus on. Is there a good summary or a key case study that you can call out? Can you provide guidance for skimming the reading, to ensure that students who are pressed for time are still taking away what is needed to succeed in the course?

On a textbook chapter: Make sure to take a close look at the diagram in Section 3 and the case study in Section 4. You’ll be discussing these concepts in the forums this week!

On an academic article: As you’re reading, pay close attention to where it discusses this topic.

3. Call out length.

When you distribute photocopied readings in an face-to-face class, your students can immediately sense how long it might take based on the thickness of the packet. Online, it can be hard to gauge the length of readings in advance.

Calling out length in your annotations–whether a resource is long or short–will help your adult students budget their time wisely.

On a webinar: This webinar is a little more than an hour long. Be sure to set aside enough time to watch it in its entirety. The discussion at the beginning really comes full circle during the audience questions at the end.

On a tutorial video: This clip is quick–just 3 minutes long–but it does a great job working through this week’s toughest topic.

4. Indicate satire.

Are you sharing a resource that is comedic or satirical? Make sure that you are clear that that is the case. Some students–especially those with autism-spectrum disorders or English-language learners–may be particularly apt to take these resources seriously!

On a satirical news video: Please note that this video is a parody and is meant to add breadth to the week’s perspectives. What is being accomplished through humor?

5. Acknowledge alternatives.

It is a best practice for accessibility to provide a textual substitute for audiovisual content in the form of alt-text, captions, or transcripts. It’s also Quality Matters Standard 8.3: “The course provides alternative means of access to course materials in formats that meet the needs of diverse learners.”

Calling attention to these resources will help all the students in your class realize that they have options. Students who have an auditory disability, students riding the train, and students with small children may rely on captions or transcripts for videos in lieu of listening to them. Plus, some students may simply find that they retain knowledge better through text than through audio or video (or vice versa!), and can select the technique that suits them best.

On a podcast: Listen to the second episode of this podcast. If you prefer, a transcript is also available.

On an interactive practice: If you’d like to view this interactive practice with captions, select the CC icon.

6. Groups!

One great way to annotate resources that’s really just a design feature is to group resources together. Then students can focus their attention on the week’s resources by topic, length, media type, or another factor. It’s important to clearly communicate what the groups are.

Example groups

  • Perspective 1, Perspective 2
  • Topic 1, Topic 2, Topic 3
  • Academic Articles, Industry Resources, Popular Articles, Video Tutorials

7. Draw connections.

Without context, students might look at a resource and think, “Why am I reading/watching/listening to this?” At the very least, it can be confusing; it can also be discouraging. No one likes to feel like they are wasting their time.

How can you ensure this doesn’t happen? Connect the resource to the week’s objectives. If you do this regularly, you’ll easily satisfy Quality Matters Standard 4.1 (“The instructional materials contribute to the achievement of the stated course and module/unit learning objectives”). Some techniques include referring to the objective at length or coding your objectives for brevity.

On a white paper: This document demonstrates effective written communication and is directly related to this week’s objective to deliver an industry report.

On an academic paper: This article is aligned with objectives O3, O4, and O6.

8. Indicate reading order.

Students often establish their own reading orders according to external factors. For example: “I’ll watch the two shortest videos,” or “I’ll only read the one long paper.” By annotating your resources, you have the opportunity to build a narrative for students as they work their way through. This kind of guidance can be minimal or thorough.

Example: You might consider reading the popular articles before diving into the critical pieces. They help summarize some of the more difficult topics.

Example: Before you do anything else, listen to this week’s podcast. Then read the journal article, and think about their similarities and differences. Finally, read the opinion piece and compare it with your own conclusions on the topic.

9. Differentiate between optional and required material.

It is important for us to respect the amount of time students are able to commit to the course, which includes clearly differentiating between optional and required material. It can be frustrating to hear that a resource was optional when you studied it extensively for a test or project!

Plus, these annotations will help you meet Quality Matters Standard 4.6: “The distinction between required and optional materials is clearly explained.”

On a blog post: This blog post is optional, but it provides an interesting pop-culture perspective on the topic that the week’s critical essays do not address.   

10. Hold a scavenger hunt (potentially for bonus points).

One engaging way to get students to sit down with the resources is to hold short scavenger hunts. There are two quick ways to do this: calling out parts of the resource that will appear in the assessments, and providing bonus points for short research assignments. The examples below illustrate both of these methods.

Example: I won’t tell you what’s on page 23, but you won’t want to miss it for the quiz this week!

Example: The first 3 students to e-mail me with the correct response will be awarded one bonus point toward their final grade. In the podcast for this week, the speaker says, “My final opinion on the topic is that it is absurd.” Send me the time stamp (minute and second) and the topic the speaker thinks is absurd.


Annotating resources is easy to incorporate into the design of your online class. For examples of annotations from other SPS courses or guidance annotating the resources in your class, contact Learning Designer Krissy Wilson.

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