Building Community and Comprehension with Collaborative Reading and Homework Assignments

Wednesday 1:20 PT / 2:20 MT / 3:20 CT / 4:20 ET Online
Teaching Demonstration Part of Teaching Demonstrations


Lance Tully, University of South Carolina-Columbia
Katherine Ryker, University of South Carolina-Columbia


This demonstration will highlight the interactive and social components of Perusall that allow instructors to develop just-in-time teaching content that engages students. We will share examples of typical and atypical questions from students, as well as summaries of their responses to the overall course structure.


We used a combination of an OER textbook (, a collaborative e-reading program (, and weekly homework assignments (Learning Journals) that students could work on in small groups to promote the development of small learning communities within a larger, online physical geology class of 170 students. For all collaborative assignments (homework, readings and labs), students work in groups based on their lab section, each of which is capped at 24. The reading program generates a report that allows instructors to create just-in-time teaching opportunities based on the topics of greatest interest to students. These range from fairly typical for this audience (How can rocks behave elastically?) to more creative or unusual (Can we harness the kinetic force of an earthquake and use it in a productive way?).

Student feedback has been overwhelmingly positive, including high attendance at synchronous sessions despite no participation requirement. Lab instructors report that students appear to have a greater degree of fluency with the material than in past semesters. Student questions are asked and answered quickly, and more engaging questions can be addressed with the full class.


We developed a blended asynchronous/synchronous version of our physical geology course, which is mostly taken by non-majors fulfilling a general education requirement. The course is set up as a Tuesday/Thursday lecture course, plus a required lab section, which is taught Monday-Thursday.

During the first half of the week, students complete textbook readings and watch lecture videos for the asynchronous portion of the class. Mid-week, the instructors review and respond to emerging questions from the textbook readings. On Thursdays, the instructors begin class by addressing any general questions (including technical issues; 5-10 minutes) while students join the Zoom room, then spend approximately 25 minutes on the "engaging questions of the week" and any other questions that emerge from the chat. For the remaining 40-45 minutes, students work on their weekly Learning Journals in groups of 3-6 based on their lab section. Students can submit these twice and only their highest grade is saved.

Why It Works

We designed this physical geology course structure around three major themes, which were shared with the students at the beginning of the semester: collaboration, minimizing stakes, and minimizing costs/downloads. Humans learn in a social context, and connections are strengthened when we explain material to one another, which emphasizes to us the need for collaborative learning opportunities. We had also heard from many of our peers in Fall 2020 that they were struggling to engage students in online courses, especially those being taken for general education credit. We wanted to encourage students to engage with one another, while minimizing any advantages present due to stronger wifi connectivity (e.g. downloads that required increased bandwidth, points for attendance) or issues that could arise due to extended absences (e.g. an illness). This meant providing a larger number of formative, smaller stakes assignments, and using only free, online resources that did not require students to download software. This course structure also needed to be manageable for one instructor to oversee with 170 students.

In large classroom settings, students can sometimes be reluctant to engage in discussions, making connection with students challenging. This effect may be magnified in large online classrooms, where it is even easier to "hide." The way we utilize the Perusall platform encourages all students to engage with course materials through comments, questions, and annotations with a relatively small grade incentive (10% of the course total). The Learning Journals offer a similarly low-stakes incentive (15% of the course total), especially with the opportunity to work in groups and with multiple submissions. Perhaps the biggest benefit of its use is the visibility it provides to the concepts students are struggling with, connections they are making between the material and their own experiences, and insights into how they are learning geology. We use this feedback each week to drive our Thursday discussions and shape future Learning Journal and exam materials, allowing us as instructors to be much more student-centered in our teaching. We've also been able to get to know our students better through this feedback loop, and expect to continue using it to increase connection, engagement, and learning in future courses when we return to a traditional, in-person instruction format.

This content is only available to individuals who have registered for the 2021 Earth Educators' Rendezvous

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This content is only available to individuals who have registered for the 2021 Earth Educators' Rendezvous

If you're a registered attendee you'll need to login to access this content