(Re)Imagining a More Engaging Discussion with Perusall

Nov. 24, 2021

Explore two ways Perusall - a free social annotation tool - might be utilized to transform asynchronous online discussions.

Close-up of someone having a chat conversation on her laptop.

Threaded discussion boards are a staple of many online courses. They offer opportunities for learners to collaboratively construct meaning, engage in critical discourse, and confirm mutual understanding. However, the formulaic prompts of traditional online discussion boards often result in inauthentic and transactional learner interactions, suggesting that while learners are compliant with online discussions, they may not be engaged

With learner-to-learner interaction being positively related to the perceived quality of the learning experience, educators have earnestly pursued effective methods for fostering engagement in online discussions (Hay, Peltier, & Drago, 2004). Contemporary literature sites three inadequacies of the structure of traditional threaded online discussions:

  • Threaded online discussions may not engage learners in higher order thinking.
  • Threaded online discussions may not allow for the co-construction of knowledge and reflection.
  • Threaded online discussions prioritize posts by date, burying discussion posts that may be most pertinent (Thurston).

These challenges can manifest in (1) how we frame the discussion prompt, and (2) our technology choice. In light of these challenges, we might begin to question the role each traditional discussion parameter has in helping and hindering student engagement:

  • How might the way a question or prompt is phrased assist/prevent learners from focusing on higher-order levels of Bloom’s Taxonomy (i.e. analyze and evaluate)?
  • Word counts and citations transform the discussion into a more formal writing assignment. How might this encourage/preclude learners from taking risks in their thinking?
  • Learners must start a thread before they can read and reply to other threads. Requiring learners to start a thread before they can read and reply to others does not follow the natural progression of discussions in person or online (Reddit, Twitter, email, etc.). How might this affect learners’ ability to co-construct knowledge?
  • In online discussions we often specify how many posts learners should reply to, but we don’t identify why. How might indicating “why” encourage higher order thinking? How might it facilitate the co-construction of knowledge?
  • LMS discussion boards typically prioritize posts by date - i.e. placing newer posts at the top. How might “upvoting” and tags change the visibility of pertinent posts?

In a recent design of two online graduate courses, I reflected on these questions under the framework of SAMR and the EdTech Quintet. The result was the creation of two discussions based on the principle of “assisted freedom of choice,” and facilitated through the use of Perusall - a collaborative annotation tool that turns solitary reading assignments into collective learning activities. 

A Modification of Online Discussions

Digital Powerups is a strategy developed by Travis Thurston, Director of Teaching Excellence at Utah State University, as a way to engage learners in higher-order thinking through online discussions. In this strategy, learners use hashtags to identify their level of engagement in a discussion. The hashtags are verbs aligned with Bloom’s Taxonomy, and each acts as a mini-prompt for learner interaction. For example:

  • Use #translate.  Select an idea or concept from the text and explain it in a different way. You may choose to do this with words, images, movement, or other media.
  • Use #question. Ask a clarifying question to help you better understand the text.
  • Use #compare. Examine a section of the text, and compare to another source (i.e. from lecture, the text, extracurricular source). Explain how they are related.
  • Use #critique. Critically and respectfully review a section of the text and provide a critique. Remember to cite (either formally or informally with a link) any external references.
  • Use #create. Organize an aspect of the text into something novel. Examples include a chart, timeline, diagram, model, explainer video, etc.

Depending on the complexity of the tags, learners may be asked to participate in each discussion by selecting three tags with which to author an original post or to respond to a peer.

Utilizing Perusall with the Digital Powerup strategy modifies course discussions, fostering a Community of Inquiry and offering opportunities for significant redesign. Perusall’s built-in tagging and upvoting features offer unique ways for learners (and instructors) to visualize course content, to concisely communicate with peers, and to quickly access pertinent posts.

Journal Club:
A Transformation of Online Discussions

A Journal Club is a group of scholars who meet regularly to discuss and critically evaluate current peer-reviewed research and literature. At each gathering, members (often one or two) present a summary of the chosen paper, followed by a group discussion. The discussion may be driven by attendees asking clarifying questions, inquiries about different aspects of the topic, critiques of the literature, comparison to other works, etc. The goal of a Journal Club is to:

  1. improve critique skills
  2. keep current on published literature
  3. translate forefront knowledge to guide practice and future research
  4. maintain reading habits. 

Through the use of Perusall, the typically synchronous format of a journal club can be shifted to an asynchronous learner-directed format. Instructors facilitate this experience by loading their articles into their Perusall library, and assigning learners as the facilitator of each article. Learners’ responsibilities are to (1) post a short summative video presentation as the first comment on their assigned article and (2) tag relevant questions to help drive discussion within the article. Learners are also expected to participate in all asynchronous discussions by posting responses to questions and suggesting additional questions to drive conversation.

Try Perusall

Perusall is free to use and offers opportunities to modify and redefine discussions and collaborative assignments in your course. It integrates with D2L, offers machine grading based on student engagement, and includes a robust set of analytical tools. Contact the InTech Team at InTech@arizona.edu to start integrating this tool in your course.


Bruff, Derek. “Teaching with Perusall and Social Annotation – Highlights from a Conversation.” Vanderbilt University, Vanderbilt University, 23 Sept. 1970, https://cft.vanderbilt.edu/2020/09/teaching-with-perusall-and-social-annotation-highlights-from-a-conversation/

Peltier, James W., et al. “The Interdependence of the Factors Influencing the Perceived Quality of the Online Learning Experience: A Causal Model.” Journal of Marketing Education, vol. 29, no. 2, 2007, pp. 140–153., https://doi.org/10.1177/0273475307302016

Puentedura, Ruben R. “Pragmatic Dreams: New Learning in the Arts and Digital Technology.” Vimeo. TEAL 2021. vimeo.com/516491246. Accessed Nov. 2021.

Radenski. (2009). Freedom of choice as motivational factor for active learning. SIGCSE Bulletin, 41(3), 21–25. https://doi.org/10.1145/1595496.156289.

Stachowiak, Bonni. “Online Engagement Through Digital Powerups.” Teaching in Higher Ed, Director of Teaching Excellence Travis Thurston, Episode 295, 6 February 2020, https://teachinginhighered.com/podcast/online-engagement-through-digital-powerups/

Sun, Yanyan, and Fei Gao. “Comparing the Use of a Social Annotation Tool and a Threaded Discussion Forum to Support Online Discussions.” The Internet and Higher Education, vol. 32, 2017, pp. 72–79., https://doi.org/10.1016/j.iheduc.2016.10.001

Thurston, Travis. “Powering Up Your Online Discussions: Using Scaffolds and Hashtags.” YouTube. ETE Conference 2017. https://youtu.be/3oa1iK9E1Dk. Accessed Nov. 2021.