The Verdict on Exemplar(y) Student Essays:A Review of A.nnotate

With my experiment in model essay annotation now complete, the time has come to reflect upon the experience.

Organising the experiment:

Over the past few years, my students have begun asking (politely) for a model essay on which to base their own work. For many years I resisted these pleas (politely). Historical essays take many forms and providing a single model for the students would set an arbitrary precedent for the correct format. However, after reading Jan Skillen‘s 2006 essay, I was convinced that having my students annotate a model essay would provide them with the desired exemplar and satisfy my desire for students to explore and interrogate alternative essay structures.
When it came to designing the experiment, I had several options.
  • Pen and paper – Does not require any (modern) technology and can be done either within or outside formal contact hours. However, monitoring student progress requires the collection and examination of student scripts, or hovering over students while they work individually or in groups.
  • GoogleDocs – Requires minimal technology (web browser) but can easily go horribly wrong if students accidentally remove sections of the essay. It also reduces the amount of work that can be done during seminars / under my supervision.
  • Agilewords – (my original first choice) Requires minimal technology (web browser) and preserves the original formatting of the document by presenting the file as a PDF. However, the service requires students to create an account and the lecturer to pay (a nominal) fee for hosting the essays.
  • A.nnotate – (my eventual decision) Requires minimal technology (web browser) and preserves the original formatting of the document in a similar fashion to Agilewords. However, A.nnotate allows guests to access and annotate the document and offers free accounts to uploaders (allowing up to 32 pages a month).
The first step, of course, was to choose an essay to use. I had several legitimate student essays haunting my filing cabinet; the neglected ghosts of students unwilling to visit feedback sessions. Unfortunately, data protection legislation, and human decency, prevented me from using these without the author’s consent. I could have written a new essay myself, but this would have been an obvious forgery, exaggerating my pet peeves like a film extra feigning drunkenness. One colleague suggested that I buy a ‘study aid‘ essay from a ‘study aid‘ website, but I couldn’t bring myself to patronise that sort of establishment. In the end I uploaded one of my own undergraduate essays. Humility is an important attribute of educators.

The upload procedure was straightforward and I managed to upload 4 copies of my first-year model essay to the server in a single session. Once the document was processed, I set the access settings to allow guest (anonymous) annotators and generated a guest access link to send my students via email. Because the links are quite long, and non-intuitive, I felt relatively confident vandalism from outsiders would not be an issue. 

When my students visited the site (each seminar had their own copy of the essay), they were presented with a non-editable version of the model essay. Using their mouse, they could highlight words, phrases, or whole paragraphs, bringing up an annotation ‘bubble’. In addition to making a general comment, students could also tag their comment as a query, a suggestion or a variety of other annotation types (see image). Students could also click on existing bubbles and add ‘replies’ to the original comment. Although this theoretically allowed debates to evolve, most students chose to start their own bubble rather than continue someone else. They could also add a ‘final thought’ to the paper, much as I do during the formal feedback process.
During the week, I was able to visit the site and view a summary of the annotations being made on each of the essays. The individual notes could be viewed within an individual document (as seen by the students), across all 4 documents by date,

or in a list by each individual document:

From any of these screens, I could reply to student queries or redirect tangential or erroneous comments. As expected, because of the non-intuitive link, plagiarism by outsiders was not an issue.

Once my two-week experiment was completed, I was able to export the essay, including all annotations, as a PDF. The resultant PDF is very clearly legible (unlike printing annotated Word revisions) and generally takes the same number of printed pages as the original document.

I then printed out the marked-up essay and made hard copies for my students in order to facilitate an in-class discussion of the paper at our next seminar.
Having read the comments, I could tell that students were generally unimpressed with the essay. A few complimentary comments cropped up here and there, but in general the students were very clear about what the essay had failed to do; namely address the question and signpost the argument. When I asked students to give me their opinion in class, this was again the general consensus. 
Working with the university’s standard marking criteria, I asked the students to explain what mark they would have given the essay and why. Most hovered around the 2:1 – 2:2 borderline. There main rationales were that: 
  1. the question had asked about art OR literature, and the author had attempted to do both
  2. there were no signposts in the essay to explain how each section answered the title question
  3. the author was narrative rather than analytical
As these are my three primarily complaints with first-year essay, I was very impressed to hear them so precisely mentioned by my students. I then asked for their definitions of ‘narrative’ and ‘analytical’ to make sure they really understood the difference.
  • Narrative — Telling a story
  • Analytical — Arguing something
These are not, I admit, the best historiographical definitions, but they were a starting point for a fruitful discussion with my students about the nature of an analytical essay and the difference between arguing something and merely asserting it to be true.
Although I cannot conclusively state that the experiment was a success until the first essays are marked (in two weeks time), I am cautiously hopeful that it will make some difference to their understanding of the marking process. 
I can also say that for affordability, versatility and ease of use, I cannot recommend A.nnotate highly enough. 

2 thoughts on “The Verdict on Exemplar(y) Student Essays:A Review of A.nnotate

  1. The Torg

    Wow, a ringing endorsement. I feel caught between the blogs where I have all their work but can't annotate and the review feature of Word. Hmmmmm. How does A.nnotate fit in there? 🙂

  2. M. H. Beals

    It depends. A.nnotate works very well for collaborative work because you can have many people marking up a single document at once without fear of accidentally altering the original document. I could also see it working for back-and-forth discussions of a single document. Saves emailing it back and forth. On the other hand, if I were giving direct, one-to-one feedback on student work, I think I'd stick to Word or the new version of Acrobat (which has many of the same tools but maintains formatting). A.nnotate seems more trouble than its worth for a single round of comments.

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