Using in an upper level psych/neuro course

In spring of 2017, I asked students to use to annotate readings in an upper level psychology course entitled “Neurobiology of Disease” (NoD). This course did not have a textbook. Rather, students read 1-2 dense articles per week. Students rotated turns annotating our course readings with

Here is some more info on the course and assignment:

The course –

“Neurobiology of Disease is a lab course designed to explore the biopsychosocial bases of neurological and psychiatric conditions. We will focus on neurobiological etiology, epidemiology, and the health/wellness implications of diseases. We will also explore neuropsychological assessment, MRIs, and specific cases through a laboratory component. Topics covered will include (but are not limited to) Stroke, Alzheimer’s Disease, Huntington’s Disease, Schizophrenia, Migraine, and Mood Disorders.”

The assignment –

PARTICIPATION…………”Outside of class, you will each be responsible for adding annotations to our assigned readings using I have assigned you into three groups (A, B, C). Each group will be responsible for annotating 4 times throughout the semester. Your annotations are due the Sunday night at Midnight. Each annotation should include at least 4 annotations per article or primer (there are usually 2 articles/primers) for a total of at least 8 annotations. Your annotations can be related to aspects of the article you found confusing, questions you have, clarifications that would help you understand the article, parts you found interesting, or links to additional resources the article made you think of. Here is our group. The purpose of this assignment is to help you become more critical readers, especially when it comes to complex material”…………


A little more info about the course

NoD consisted of 20 psychology students. Most of the students were juniors & seniors taking this course to fulfill the biological psychology requirement for the psychology major. Most students in the course were also initially intimidated by the biological aspect of the psychology major. I often find my students express preferences for social and clinical psychology to biological or cognitive psychology – at least before they are fully exposed to it.

The content of this course was challenging for the students and I wanted to promote learning in this course rather than anxiety. With that in mind, the course has only one exam early in the semester on foundational biological psychology content (basic anatomy/physiology of the nervous system and a neuron). In this way, all the students had a foundation within the first three weeks and we could use this foundation as a launching pad to dig deeply into the variety of neurobiological and psychiatric conditions we were exploring (e.g., stroke, Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, PTSD).

After these first few weeks of class, each class period or week centered on one specific neurobiological disease. The week started early Tuesday mornings with a lab. During lab periods, we primarily engaged in active learning. In some cases, this meant testing each other using neuropsychological tests. For example, early in the semester we tested each others basic orientation and mental status. Another lab focused on motor skills and procedural learning. Yet another focused on memory.

Other labs were discussion based (focusing on big picture topics like whether changes in brain structure or function alter the “self”) or neuroimaging based. For example, in one lab the students were tasked to examine various scans (MRI, CT, PET) and determine the diagnosis based on the scans or the neuropsychological test results provided.

Tuesday and Thursday afternoons we had class. During class on Tuesdays, I primarily lectured with a mix of discussion and activities. Thursdays, students were generally in charge of teaching a full class period in groups of four. If there wasn’t a student group teaching, we focused Thursday on psychosocial impact of disease or big picture issues.

With no exams to motivate students to study, I wanted to find a way to hold students accountable for reading the articles I assigned. These articles were often dense with highly complex content related to neurobiology and genetics associated with various diseases. Each week usually consisted of one denser-disease focused article and one more approachable article related to the disease or the lab material. Sometimes students were asked to listen to a podcast as well.

One thing I’ve heard from students in the past is that they don’t understand the material in the reading or they don’t really know what certain words mean. Often, they feel like they are the only one who doesn’t know what something means – as if the reading is difficult for them but no one else. I wanted to find a way to normalize the challenges associated with reading academic articles and to promote student conversations related to readings. Last summer, one of my wonderful colleagues introduced me to, and this seemed like a potential mechanism to meet these two goals.

Here is a brief overview of what went well and what didn’t go as well:

What went well

  1. Tags – I used tags in to organize the readings by group and by week. This way, students could easily click on the week to find the readings.

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2.  Increased interaction between myself and students – I made a point to respond to students annotations most weeks. I didn’t necessarily respond to each one, but I tried to address questions students asked or give kudos when I thought someone made a particularly useful or insightful comment.

3. Normalizing complexity of readings – One things my students frequently did when encountering new vocabulary was look it up and post a link to a video explaining the vocab. Or else, they might define the term or link to another research study or website that offered a more in depth explanation.

4. Low stakes nature of the assignment – The students were graded on completion, so it was an easy way to earn points. The low stakes nature of the assignment was appreciated by those who felt they didn’t understand every word of the articles. This also gave quieter in-class voices a way to actively participate. Also, most students who completed the annotations regularly (there were a few rebels) did far more than the required 8 per week.

5. Skill building – The students learned a completely new skill and dealt with ambiguity in figuring out how to use Most of them were a little grumpy at first because we had some trouble shooting issues, but I think ultimately they appreciated learning this new skill.

6. Demos in class/Patience – Since this was a new skill, I demoed in class more than once and often gave students extensions for completing their annotations because they would run into problems getting everything to work properly. I decided early on that I’d rather have them do the assignment late than not do it at all and I think this helped, although it was sometimes frustrating.

Some examples –


What could have gone better?

  1. Trouble shooting & PDFs – We were primarily reading articles that were pdfs and so this meant that students had to navigate using a pdf with which is somewhat tedious. I am not sure if I taught them the most effective way, but we would usually have to download the pdf and then drag it into chrome browser in order to annotate with Some students struggled with this a little bit or would forget how to do it properly. Then they would end up creating “notes” on the pdf rather than actually contributing annotations, which was less interactive.
  2. My choice in articles – I have this tendency to choose articles that end up being denser than I realize. In retrospect, I would have liked to organize this course differently with more engaging readings. This may have promoted more student-student interaction on I definitely noticed more comments (overall) and more insightful comments on the readings that were more interesting to the students.
  3. Groups – I’m kind of up in the air on this one. I think in the future I would require students to annotate every week. I’m pretty sure that students who didn’t have to annotate did not do the readings, at all (with a few exceptions). Rather than assigning 3 groups, I’d ask them to annotate each week with 2 freebie weeks. This way they don’t have 3 weeks to get rusty and the class interacts more cohesively as a unit rather than just in their group assignments.
  4. (Lack of) Enthusiasm/Attitudes – I had really mixed reviews from students. Some students seemed to like using Some detested it and didn’t even complete most of their assigned weeks. In order to help with this, I think doing one simultaneous in-class, live annotation would help. I also think choosing more engaging readings would help. Finally, I think finding readings that are more accessible online (rather than pdfs) so that students don’t have to take 4 steps to get everything set up would help.


In what context(s) would I use in the future?

I would use in a a small (<25 students) upper level course. Ideally, the course would focus on primary literature as the main source of reading, involve discussion inside the classroom, and center on a topic students express interest in.

I would not use in a lower level or introductory course, or with a large course (over 25 students). In part this is because I often was answering emails about getting to work correctly with our readings. This may have been my fault by the way I set it up, but it would be challenging to manage student trouble shooting for a new tool in a larger course.

Overall, student seemed to appreciate and the structure of the course. They agreed that there needed to be a way to hold students more accountable and motivate them to do the reading. They also commented that some of the best features of the course were “the pro-learning aspect,” the sense that they could “learn the subjects overall rather than memorizing details,” and “the opportunity to learn and enjoy the material, while not having to worry about cramming it into my brain for an exam.” I think annotations contributed to this sentiment along with some of the other assignments in the course.

At the end of the semester, students completed a survey. I only had a 50% response rate, but one question that stood out to me was the following question about critiquing texts/readings. Students’ responses were on a 7 point scale where 1 – strongly disagree and 7 – Strongly agree. The mean response was 5.60 among NoD students:

Screen Shot 2017-06-09 at 10.53.47 AM.png
*Note – frequency on the y-axis. 1 = Strongly Disagree and 7 = Strongly Agree

Although only a small amount of data, I am optimistic about students’ responses relative to the responses I had the previous semester in a similar lab course (physiological psychology) where the students primarily used a textbook for readings and did not use annotations (M = 4.92).

Screen Shot 2017-06-09 at 10.55.28 AM.png
*Note – frequency on the y-axis. 1 = Strongly Disagree and 7 = Strongly Agree



Next up, I’ll be blogging about another aspect of this course – student portfolios on wordpress.

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