A Noteworthy Aid? The learning benefits of a social annotation tool

How can social annotation transform traditional reading into a collaborative learning experience?


Damijana Keržič and Vida Zorko from the University of Ljubljana delve into this question through their research on Diigo, a social annotation tool. They investigate its impact on student motivation, comprehension, and the correlation between learning approaches and online activity.


Read the original research: doi.org/10.1080/2331186X.2023.2269043


Image Credit: Adobe Stock / Bbourdages




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Social annotation is the practice of sharing digital notes on a text with another person or a group, making a conventionally solitary activity into a collaborative one. This is the subject of new research by Damijana Keržič and Vida Zorko in the faculty of Public Administration at University of Ljubljana, Slovenia. They investigate how students in higher education experience Diigo, a social annotation tool. Their research examines the overall reception to Diigo as a learning aid, as well as the correlation between students’ perceptions of and activity within Diigo and their approaches to learning. In other words, do those students with a deeper learning approach gain more from using Diigo than those who engage in surface-level learning?

Social annotation tools, or SATs for short, have become increasingly popular in recent years. They enable teachers and their students to share digital annotations on texts, and thereby turn reading into a truly collaborative process. Such an innovation holds the potential to improve student motivation, and enhance learning through the processes of self-reflection and the co-creation of knowledge.

Various studies have investigated how students in higher education experience SATs. Early research showed that collaborative annotations supported learning, and students who posted more annotations had better learning achievements. However, some students may have relied too heavily on annotations made by their peers. Other studies demonstrated that SATs fostered a better understanding of study materials and scaffolded learners into acquiring greater reading comprehension, including through highlighted vocabulary, added explanations, and the insertion of summaries.

Whilst previous research has pointed to many educational benefits from social annotation, issues have been raised about the medium it is practiced within. For example, users have expressed concerns about text-formatting, limited space for discussion, and the lack of tangibility in the process. In light of these findings, Damijana Keržič and Vida Zorko aimed to explore students’ experiences with Diigo, and determine whether student perceptions of and activity within the platform are related to their study approach. Diigo was selected as the social annotation tool because it has proved particularly effective for university students to cooperatively analyse, categorise and make sense of study resources.

Students were asked to share annotations in Diigo on the same article on the topic of informatics. Participants were separated into four groups and invited to select one or more important terms and write English definitions, Slovenian translations, English collocations or synonyms. They could also write English or Slovenian summaries of parts of the article. Alongside the collaborative task, students were invited to complete an online questionnaire to assess their perceptions of the experience, another on their approaches to learning, and an online test to assess their comprehension of the academic article.

The study investigated student annotation activity in Diigo and aimed to answer three research questions. The first question focused on students’ attitudes towards Diigo. In this area, results showed that students had positive perceptions of the activity and the Diigo tool itself, particularly in terms of its usefulness and learning satisfaction in group activities. These findings aligned with previous studies that found students believed using a social annotation tool added value to their learning.

The second question aimed to explore the connection between students’ learning approaches and their activity in Diigo. The findings revealed that students with a surface approach and surface motivation viewed and submitted fewer annotations. This could be due to their tendency to complete tasks with minimal effort and rely on their peers to do the group work. On the other hand, deep learners demonstrated a higher frequency of viewing content and writing comments, showing a deeper study approach and higher motivation for learning. Additionally, it was found that students with deep motivation contributed more translations of terms. The contagious effect of group motivation was also observed, as students collaborating with more motivated peers saw an improvement in their own attitudes towards the task.

The third question focused on the relationship between students’ learning approaches and their perceptions of the activity. The results indicated four correlations: students with a deep study approach felt a positive impact of the activity and were willing to collaborate in Diigo in the future. Meanwhile, the deep motivation and deep strategy sub-components of this learning approach were correlated with a positive perception of collaboration in Diigo. Furthermore, deep motivation was linked to experiencing greater ease of use with Diigo, while deep strategy was associated with the perceived usefulness of Diigo. These findings suggest that students with a deep study approach embrace new forms of learning and seek a variety of learning tasks, as they welcome challenges. This aligns with previous studies that found positive student perceptions were associated with deeper study approaches.

Overall, the study’s findings have implications for teachers designing group annotation activities. Firstly, students had a positive attitude towards the annotation activity, which may encourage the use of Diigo for collaborative projects. Secondly, understanding the relationship between students’ learning approach and their online activity can help teachers address their intrinsic interests. Furthermore, balancing groups with both deep and surface learners can motivate the latter. Lastly, promoting the value of collaborative activities can increase students’ intrinsic motivation and thereby enhance their learning.

It is important to note some limitations of the study. For example, selection bias may result from the study’s use of voluntary recruitment. This strategy means that participants included only those students who opted into the activity, and these individuals may be more likely to enjoy such a task or have previous experience with it. Additionally, asking students to self-report their learning approach may also be less reliable. Finally, the sample consisted of first year students and the collaborative task was conducted in the first semester, when they were still being introduced to their courses, potentially impacting the generalisability of results. Due to these limitations and the valuable insights gained from their study, Damijana Keržič and Vida Zorko propose that further research into social annotation tools is required, particularly with respect to group dynamics and the relationship between student activity and learning approaches.

That’s all for this episode, thanks for listening. Links to the original research can be found in the shownotes for this episode. And, as always, don’t forget to subscribe to ResearchPod for more of the latest science.

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