An annotation tool is a tool which allows the user to make additions to a document, image, or other file without changing the original file. Annotations can be physical, such as a post-it note, but most are electronic and provide the ability to add stamps, text comments, and highlighter to an online document. Annotations provide a unique educational advantage as students can share ideas while preserving originality and integrity of their work.


     Annotations have a substantial research base and it has been shown in general students who annotate their work attain more academic success, understood what they learned more deeply, and score higher on tests than students who do not make annotations (Slotte and Lonka, 1999).  More specifically, annotation tools have been shown to increase class participation and motivation (Wu-Yien et al., 2007). Annotations also improve organization of work and promote attention (Yang et al., 2004; Davis & Huttenlocher, 1995). One of the most rigorous findings is annotations improve reading comprehension and critical thinking (Archibald, 2010; Mendenhall & Author, 2010). Annotations have also been demonstrated to improve writing and cause students to rely less on summarization and more on critical evaluation (Wolfe, 2008). Finally, as annotations are inherently somewhat collaborative, as they involve making visual changes to work, they have been shown to positively affect the academic performance of not just the user, but the user’s peers (Kawase et al., 2009).

Electronic annotations are generally subcategorized into social annotations and personal annotations, because many annotations are internet dependent and contain sharing tools. Social annotation programs are generally superior to personal annotations, with reasons cited being the increased motivation derived from group collaboration (Novak, Razzouk & Johnson, 2012). Annotations in a group discussion form have been compared empirically to using other online collaborative tools, such as discussion boards and message boards, and students using annotations made comments more frequently that were more technical and more specific (Brush et al, 2002).


     Annotations have significant variability in how they are positioned, which affects use. The simplest annotations will cause footnotes to appear at the bottom of the screen with the student’s comments. These annotations are the weakest, and tend to be forgotten or missed (Zellweger et al, 2000), and actually reduce note taking because of increased eye travel distance across the page (van Ostendorp, 1996). Post-it note format annotations and interlinear annotations (notes appear between lines of text) are relatively effective for sharing works in progress, but have been shown to get confused with primary text when working with published material (Cabanac et al, 2007). Margin-based annotations have the least general drawbacks and make the most use of screen real estate (Wolfe, 2008).

The type of annotation made also affects how much use will be derived. Wolfe (2008) found annotated texts provoked 50% more comments than non-annotated texts, and students were significantly more likely to comment about a passage that included both positive and negative annotations. Furthermore, the types of comments students made flipped from mostly comprehension and little critical evaluation to mostly critical evaluation when both positive and negative annotations were provided with a reading passage; this effect was also more pronounced in novice readers than experienced readers (Wolfe, 2008).


     There is debate in the literature over how much personal annotations help over merely quiet reading. A meta analysis by Novak, Razzouk, and Johnson (2012, citing Kirschner, Paas, & Kirschner, 2009; Laughlin, Bonner, & Miner, 2006) showed as a general rule personal annotations do not increase critical thinking skills and reading comprehension any more than reading the textbook alone, because they lacked a collaborative social component. This supports the Wolfe meta study which found various effects by giving students pre-annotated work, which is by design somewhat collaborative in itself.


     Annotations have a steep learning curve; Archibald (2010) found students performance using annotations was weaker than controls in the short term, but pulled ahead of controls significantly after a one-month delay. This study cited elevated cognitive load and a need for more instructional time to adapt to using annotations. These findings are supported in other findings, where students cited reading annotations as distracting and overwhelming (Novak, Razzouk, and Johnson, 2011).  It was also found some students using collaborative annotations were distracted by the social dimension and failed to make and use the annotations; this trend was seen in students with weaker social skills and weaker time management skills (Gao and Johnson). As a general rule, Novak, Razzouk, and Johnson recommend a minimum of 4 hours of training before seeing a positive return on annotation use.


     Annotations are a highly researched and effective tool that improve most areas of learning, particularly comprehension and critical thinking. Annotated readings provide increased comprehension, particularly to novice readers. Making annotations one’s self has an increased benefit to already skilled students. Annotations have a steep learning curve and can actually impair performance when building up the skills to incorporate them. Despite this, most students display significantly increased motivation and engagement when making annotations or reading texts that are annotated. Social annotation technology is consistently superior to personal technology, with the possible exception of students that are highly distractible. Margin-based annotations are superior to footnotes and in-text stickies. The recommended use for annotations is therefore not as a quick-fix, but an ongoing support to push higher level cognitive skills.   

Research Rating: There is empirical evidence, both experimental and quasi experimental to substantiate how annotations are used. However, younger children have significantly less data.


  • Highly researched

  • Enhance critical thinking and comprehension

  • Benefit novice and advanced readers in different ways

  • Social dimension enhances motivation for students

  • Usually very cheap to implement


  • Learning curve, take instruction from teachers and student skill to implement, to the point of significantly decreasing performance when first implementing

  • Without the collaborative social dimension, positive effects are less robust

  • Best annotation tools require electronic texts

To Consider

     Most of the studies cited are on older students. Because annotations are affecting higher order skills (critical thinking, meta cognition), they are recommended for high school and older students. Annotations also tend to clutter the page, which causes issues with students who suffer from distraction removal difficulties and focusing problems (such as ADHD).

Special Consideration: Workflow

OS Compatibility
Internet Reliance
Optimized Use

Exact prices change frequently, which is why only approximate ranges are listed. 

$ - Under $5

$$ - Between $6 and $50

$$$ - Between $51 and $250

$$$$ - Over $250


Archibald, T. N. (2010). The effect of the integration of social annotation technology, first principles of instruction, and team-based learning on students' reading comprehension, critical thinking, and meta cognitive skills. PhD Dissertation, Florida State University, Tallahassee, FL.


Brush, A., Bageron, D., Grudin, J., Borning, A., & Gupta, A. (2002). Supporting interaction outside of class:

Anchored disccusionss vs. Discussion boards. Paper presented at the Proceedings of CSCL 2002.


Cabanac, G., Chevalier, M., Chrisment, C., & Julien, C. (2007). Collective annotation: Perspectives for information retrieval improvement, RIAO 2007. Pittsburgh, PA.


Davis, J., & Huttenlocher, D. (1995). Shared annotation for cooperative learning. Paper

presented at the CSCL'95.


Kawase, R., Herder, E., & Nejdl, W. (2009). A comparison of paper-based and online annotations in the workplace. Paper presented at the Proceedings of the 4th European Conference on Technology Enhanced Learning: Learning in the Synergy of Multiple Disciplines, Nice, France.


Mendenhall, A., & Johnson, T. E. (2010). Fostering the development of critical thinking

skills, and reading comprehension of undergraduates using a Web 2.0 tool coupled

with a learning system. Interactive Learning Environments, 18(3), 263–276.

Novak, E., Razzouk, R., & Johnson, T. E. (2012). The educational use of social annotation tools in higher education: A literature review. The Internet and Higher Education, 15(1), 39–49,


Slotte, V., & Lonka, K. (1999). Review and process effects of spontaneous note-taking on text comprehension. Contemporary Educational Psycholgoy, 24, 1-20.


van Oostendorp, H. (1996). Studying and annotating electronic text. In J.-F. Rouet, J. J. Levonen, A. Dillon, & R. J. Spiro (Eds.) Hypertext and cognition (pp. 137–148). Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.


Wolf, J. (2008). Annotations and the collaborative digital library: Effects of an aligned annotation interface on student argumentation and reading strategies. Computer Supported Collaborative Learning. 3, 141-164.

Wu-Yuin, H., Chin-Yu,W.,&Mike, S. (2007). A study of multimedia annotation of Web-based materials. Computers & Education, 48(4), 680–699. doi:10.1016/j.compedu.2005.04.020.


Yang, S. J. H., Chen, I. Y. L., & Shao, N. W. Y. (2004). Ontology enabled annotation and

knowledge management for collaborative learning in virtual learning community.

Educational Technology & Society, 7(4), 70–81.


Zellweger, P., Mangen, A., & Newman, P. (2002). Authoring fluid narrative hypertexts

using treatable visualizations. Paper presented at the ACM Hypertext.

Written by Francis Wall, Last Revision March 2018

Notation Format