Social presence for engagement (Science)

Social presence for engagement (Science)

Dr Kristal Cain fromTe Kura Mātauranga Koiora, School of Biological Sciences at the University of Auckland used Perusall software to help 300 level and postgraduate students engage with their readings. You will find this useful if you would like to help students engage in reading, especially in small groups.

Perusall is an online platform that facilitates student reading via small-group learning. “Perusall is administration-friendly, FERPA compliant, secure, free of advertising, and integrated with every major learning management system. In terms of ethical considerations, Perusall does not share student identities with corporate recruiters. Perusall works seamlessly with financial aid systems, bookstores, and specialized university systems. Institutional licenses available” (Perusal website). Students read and annotate in small groups and can comment on each other’s annotations, ask and answer questions and engage deeply in the reading. Perusall has a built in algorithm that automatically marks the annotations – to reward/incentivize student reading. This encourages students to read and allows the instructor to assess reading without spending valuable time marking. It also integrates well with Canvas and can be configured so that marks are imported into the gradebook automatically.


Courses in biological sciences usually involve in-person course work. Upper level classes (300) regularly use primary literature, and postgraduate courses rely on primary literature exclusively. Students often struggle with transitioning from textbooks to primary literature. This project began with postgraduate students taking BIOSCI 728 Neuroethology. It then moved on to involve students in the post-graduate course  BIOSCI 735 Behavioural Ecology and then the 300 level course in Animal Behaviour (BIOSCI 337). Postgraduate courses rely entirely on students reading, presenting and discussing primary articles on discipline specific topics. The topics covered change every year. Kristal was invited to present and attend an Australasia workshop on teaching in Animal Behaviour. At that workshop she learned of this tool and proceeded to incorporate it into her courses.

Design: challenges and process

There was a desire to increase reading comprehension and up-take, this generally requires marking, and marking is very time consuming. Perusall platform allows upload of any pdfs. Primary literature that is already available to all students via the library was used. University of Auckland copyright allows sharing of online versions of articles provided there is a limit to one article per issue of the journal. Decisions were based on this link. The project team regularly assigned reading for discussion but students showed limited engagement. It became clear that many students either didn’t read at all, or only read superficially. Discussions on the paper were very surface-level. Students were given assignments to write summaries or reviews of papers, but the result was only a marginal improvement and these demanded substantial time for marking.

Implementation and evaluation

Kristal started in a small class of around 20 students, post-graduate course with minimal marks associated and then correlated the automatic marks with her own assessment of the annotations. It worked well so it was brought into another course, and used it the entire semester. Later Kristal incorporated Perusall into some undergraduate courses. Perusall is very customizable – some parameters need to be changed to suit different courses and goals. Perusall automatically assigns students into groups of 25, which is good for a long reading or if you just want a few annotations. But for courses where you want students to annotate broadly, that is way too many students. The students felt like they had to race otherwise the others would say everything first, leaving them nothing to contribute. If groups are too small – students feel isolated – especially if classmates wait until last minute. The optimal size depends on course and goals, we found that 4-10 is a better group size for most classes. The automatic marking of annotations requires some explaining, it helps to provide examples of what a good annotation is/is not. This tool requires good internet access. So that makes it challenging for some students. They can’t read and annotate on public transport etc. Some students would rather just read a PDF.

What worked well?

Student reading went up dramatically, comprehension was much higher, the quality of discussion was markedly improved. Students benefited from seeing what other students thought, and learned to pick up on the important points in the reading. Less confident students were able to contribute anonymously and try out their ideas in a safe environment, which made them more confident during in-class discussions. The software is set-up to provide students with full marks if they read, so it is best for low mark assessment.

What could be done differently?

Kristal reflects: “The setting up of Perusall is fairly straightforward but there are lots of little bits. It really helps to have a few people familiar helping others when they first get started. In Biological Sciences we’ve developed some guides to assist and have a few people that are available to assist folks that want to try it out. Students get better at Perusall the more they use it. So it helps for them to have used it previously, or to use it many times in a course. I often have the first assignment marks not count, but release them so students can see how they did and adjust their behaviour accordingly.” Kristal is positive about the use of this tool: “I’ve been using Perusall since 2018 and plan to continue. We adjust the parameters a little every year – but the combination of increased reading comprehension, higher quality discussion and reduction in marking is excellent.”

Further Resources:

Presentation at UoA Learning Design Community of Interest – Using Perusall to support student reading engagement