The Trick to Get Your Students to Read Deeply

Getting students to read is a challenge, engaging them is the answer.

Posted Mar 15, 2020

During the move to temporary online education in response to COVID-19 social distancing efforts, I am writing a series of posts covering a variety of educational technologies that can help you to quickly move online. In this post, I’ll discuss a program called Perusall.

Whether we want to admit it or not, we spend a lot of time in the classroom rehashing the content from the assigned readings. Why? Because we are often uncertain to what extent the readings have been completed and comprehended. With a sudden move to online instruction, now students can ignore both our readings and our lectures! But there’s a solution: Perusall! 

In Brief

What Is Perusall?

  • An online platform where students can annotate and discuss course readings.

What Is It Good for During COVID-19? 

  • Replacing/Continuing a discussion-based course focused on PDF readings.

What Will It Cost?

  • Free (if you use a textbook, students will have to buy or rent the text through Perusall, PDFs you upload are free).

What Is Perusall?

Perusall is an online platform for the delivery of course readings that encourages and supports students in learning how to engage with their readings and their classmates. The mission of Perusall’s developers is to “change the nature of reading – from the traditional solitary experience to an engaged and collective one.”

Perusall was developed by educators for educators and students. It was created at Harvard and has grown since 2015 to now be available in 39 different countries.

Perusall hosts the readings for your course online in a format that allows each student to annotate the readings. Perusall can be scaled for any class size, as it will automatically assign students to smaller groups for each assigned reading. Within the readings, students will highlight, comment, ask questions and discuss what they are learning. They can respond to each other’s comments and the instructor can easily participate as well. Think of it as a discussion board for your readings that is directly embedded within the readings themselves.

How do you get started?

Perusall allows you to either upload your PDF readings to its website or assign textbook readings to your students through their extensive catalog. If a book you are using for your course isn’t in their catalog, it usually only takes them a day or two to get the publisher to add the book. Uploading documents is as simple as dragging them from your desktop onto the Perusall webpage. You can then organize them in folders (e.g., Week 1, Week 2, or Topic A, Topic B).

Once you have your readings added to the course, you can assign the readings. By clicking on any reading (a PDF or a textbook) and then clicking “assign” you can select the entire document or a portion of it (e.g., 1 chapter) and set a deadline. You can choose how many annotations a student needs to make to get full marks. Thus, if you assign a short reading, you might set the number of annotations to 2-3, but if you assign a longer reading, you might set the annotations to 15 or more. 

After setting the course up with the readings and the various due dates for each assignment, it’s time to invite the students. Again, this is quite simple, you can just send them an email with the link to Perusall, ask them to create an account, and then provide them with the “access code” to join your class. (See below for instructions on joining a sample classroom). There are some useful documents from Perusall to help explain the process to your students, but in my experience, students catch on very quickly.

Why should you use it?

Student Engagement

The short answer is because it will get your students to do the readings. But, not only will they do the readings, they will be more likely to understand the readings and to engage with the readings in a more meaningful way. In Perusall, it’s very easy to pull in additional content to supplement the readings. For example, if your textbook mentions a song, you can add an annotation that pulls in a YouTube video of that song, making it instantly accessible to the students as they read through the document. Over time you’ll find that the students themselves begin to add this content. Your readings will come alive, not only with the intelligent discussions that your students will have directly within the readings, but through the additional content they pull in, including videos, images, and links to other articles online.

Quick Clarification

Another great aspect of Perusall is that it allows students to ask questions and seek clarification right at the moment that they are having difficulty understanding a concept. They can add an annotation that defines a word or concept that they don’t understand. They can tag the instructor to ask a point of clarification, which will send a notification to you, allowing you to go in and address any misunderstandings before they become permanent! As an instructor, you’ll also get a better sense of what topics are challenging for the students to understand, giving you a good idea of what to focus on more in your other methods of instruction. You’ll also learn what excites them and what the students relate to, giving you great insight into how your students think and what they want to learn.

Automatic Grading

Perusall offers an option of grading each annotation that a student makes, and then creating an overall grade for each assignment. Each annotation gets a grade between 0 and 2, while each reading gets a grade between 0 and 3. The overall reading can go up to 3 because the grading takes into consideration the dispersion of the annotations throughout the reading. The grading algorithm can be adjusted to your preferences, but their default algorithm works very well. Compared to a human grader across an entire semester, the algorithm is more consistent and accurate! However, if you choose, you can also do the grading manually by quickly using a drop-down menu to assign a grade to each annotation. You can also do a mix, where the algorithm assigns the grades, but you can always alter a grade based on your judgment. Grading automatically turns on for courses with more than 15 students, but you can request that the feature be turned on for smaller classes.

What Is Perusall Best for During COVID-19 Online Teaching?

In terms of COVID-19, I think Perusall will be most useful for replacing discussion-based seminar courses. It will take you less than 30 minutes to set up the classroom with your readings for the rest of the semester, students will pick it up quickly, and you’ll be able to continue having very in-depth discussions about the assigned readings.

Perusall may be less useful for courses that rely on a textbook, as your students have likely already purchased a hard copy of the book and won’t want to buy another digital copy through Perusall. However, many books do offer short term rental periods, and perhaps publishers will begin to offer a specific “COVID-19” rental period at a discounted or waived fee to help students finish their courses.


Experience Perusall from the student perspective by joining a sample classroom. Visit and when prompted, enter this code: BLAIR-GXQS2. Perusall also has its own demo class available here:

Click Here to access a sample set of instructions that I give to my students at the beginning of using Perusall, including a more detailed explanation of setting up their account. 

The Perusall website has an extensive support library to help you navigate all of the features of the platform, such as integration with your existing LMS (e.g., Moodle, Blackboard), adding readings, creating groups, changing the grading algorithm, etc. 

Click here to access a recorded Webinar about using Perusall.