Decoding expertise: Understanding academic texts collaboratively using Hypothesis

Close up photo of someone highlighting text on a piece of papr

Think of a time when you read some text and it made you angry, confused or excited. Why did it provoke a response? Text is powerful.

We wrestle with the texts we read to make sense of them. As educators and content experts, we want to model this text-wrestling and give our students space to learn how to decode and recreate academic texts. We do that in many ways, and one way that could be beneficial, particularly online, is Hypothesis.

Hypothesis is an open source social annotation tool that lets users highlight and annotate any webpage or PDF. Hypothesis integrated in Canvas brings the discussion directly to course content by enabling students and instructors to add comments, ideas and questions anchored to the text.

Illustration displaying the components of an article

Ask yourself this critical question: What are the things the article assumes the reader knows and that students need help decoding?

You can consider the response on three levels of abstraction: words and phrases, paragraphs and sections, and the entire article. Let’s look at each of these three pathways to use Hypothesis in your teaching context.

API, dataframe, algorithm: not knowing what these terms actually mean will hinder students’ understanding of a computer or data science field article. Students might need to know concepts such as active transport, homeostasis and entropy to decode biology or biochemistry articles, but have difficulty asking because the understanding gap is at the fundamental level.

Pathway #1
Defining terminology

What it could look like on Canvas:

  • POST
    Read through the article and mark any words or phrases you are not completely familiar with.
    *You can use tags such as "unsure," "no idea," "lost," aha moments.
    Read through the terminology your peers have identified and try to use the text (or other resources you have) to explain what they mean.
    *You can also share what parts of the text helped you understand the terminology.

Through this activity, students are guided to carry out a two-step process in which they identify the gap first, then find a solution. Once these two steps are separated, students will feel less overwhelmed and more confident to find solutions to the identified gaps or problems.

Having students annotate what they don’t know provides reassurance for the class that they are not alone. Each of the adult learners comes to class with various backgrounds and assets that are usually not similar.

Pathway #2
Identifying confusing areas

What it could look like on Canvas:

  • POST
    Mark any difficult sentences or sections (unclear, had to reread, terrible, difficult to understand, confusing to me)
    Rephrase pieces, summarize the hard ones, explain connection to other sections, or significance of stating it

Instructors need to know what their students do not know. While the expert perspective that the faculty have spent years developing is needed to facilitate the course, the fundamental knowledge of a discipline is often taken for granted.

By identifying areas where students get confused or lost, the faculty can tailor instruction to match student needs. The students are actively participating in the process of decoding the necessary expertise to understand the academic texts. They are learning how to "read like an expert," and that process can be powerfully collaborative.

Pathway #3
Making sense of an article

What it could look like on Canvas:

  • POST
    Interact with the text and post three comments. These are optional prompts:
    • What new info are you encountering? What seems to be repackaging about what you already know?
    • What are some parts of the text that relate to things you are seeing in your professional context?
    • What are some parts of the text that relate to things you are being exposed to in other courses in your program?
    • What seems to be confusing? Is there a phrase that has multiple meanings? Is there a buzzword you are unsure of?
    • What do you strongly disagree with or have a distinct opinion about?
    Respond to at least two of your peers' comments or questions.

By not determining a specific direction and taking a student-centered approach, these open-ended prompts can help students focus on the areas they want to comment on or ask questions about.

Through this platform, a visual process is provided for students to build on the concepts they are learning and create a deeper understanding. Through this design, the opportunity is provided for students to serve as mentors and to learn from each other.

Questions you are not the first person to wonder:

How might you use this in your course?

If you would like to watch us present this topic, please click here.

-Fatemeh Mardi and Jerod Quinn, Instructional Designers