Student engagement generally refers to students’ level of investment, passion, and interest in the subject and course material, as well as the degree of interaction and the motivation shown by students to learn and progress through the course. There are a number of digital tools and strategies that can help students engage more deeply with the course materials.

Engagement with Course Materials

The primary means for students to engage with course materials is typically reading. While we often give students reading quizzes, direct them to answer discussion board reading prompts, or submit short response papers to gage their engagement with the materials, you can also consider ways for students to be able to engage both with the text and each other more deeply and meaningfully using digital tools. That is, you can create opportunities for students to read, analyze, and annotate texts together. Doing so can increase students’ sense of accountability and also enhance peer learning. Digital tools such as VoiceThread and Panopto also allow students to annotate with multimedia, including images, sound and video files, and hyperlinks to other content.

Before diving more deeply into specific tools that can support this kind of engagement, there are two key things to keep in mind. First, what do you want students to get out of the material? Before choosing a technology, ensure that the uses of that tool actually enhance your goals for student learning. Second, how can you lessen the learning curve involved in the use of new technologies? In order to reduce student anxiety (as well as your own!) and increase their levels of engagement, build in time and space to demonstrate the new tool, model how you would like them to engage with it, and allow students to practice before they are asked to perform. Some tools to consider:

  • Google Docs is a low-threshold technology with which most students are already familiar and a solid means for collaborative annotation. You can not only limit the docs availability exclusively to enrolled students, but can also limit students’ annotation to “comment only,” thus avoiding accidental changes to the text itself.
  • If what you want the students to read is more visual in nature, you can create a VoiceThread where you can create a short video of you annotating the document, image, chart, or graph, and then students leave their own comments, asynchronously, which can be audio or video, alongside their own annotations. This creates a kind of “conversation” between the students and yourself about the document.
  • allows for students to collaboratively annotate web pages and PDFs, meaning that you can see not only if they are reading but also how they are reading the materials. By installing a plugin to their browser, students can leave multimedia annotations on web texts and PDFs. As long as you know the student’s username, you can see their annotations. If you create your own account, you can also engage and respond to their annotations.
  • Finally, consider adopting Open-Education Resources (OER) materials into your course. is a searchable database of readings, textbooks, integrated and interactive activities connected to the readings, all at no cost to you or the students.

Things to Remember

  • Be specific in your prompts and directions. Don’t just say “annotate”—make clear to your students exactly what they’re being asked to do. Share an example, if possible. This is especially important since students don’t have the typically before- and after-class opportunities to ask for clarification.
  • Model the kinds of comments and engagement you want to see from the students. VoiceThread is a great example, because you go first, showing the students what a response should look and sound like while also explaining the activity.
  • Explicitly connect activities to each other and make these connections visible to your students. Make sure you tell students, either before or after, why they did the activity, and explicitly address how it prepares them for the next step in their learning.

Further Resources:

Engaging Students with Panopto: Webinar discussing how to use Panopto, a video creation and sharing tool, for richer student engagement.

Student Annotations Using A helpful tip-sheet for getting started with, the collaborative annotation tool, in Canvas.