By Cynthia Rutz, Director of Faculty Development, VITAL


Like many of you, I have struggled to get my students to read for class.  I have tried daily reading quizzes, group presentations, even assigning questions for each reading. But nothing has worked as well as the free and easy to use app Perusall.

Perusall is a free online collective reading and learning community where you can place some of your class readings.   Students can comment directly on the text, interacting and engaging with one another in ways that mirror social media platforms (such as liking, boosting, or tagging others). It was co-founded by Eric Mazur, Dean of Applied Physics at Harvard.

Instructor benefits include:

  •  “confusion reports” (frequent student questions and unclear concepts)
  • automatic scoring of the quality of students’ posts and level of engagement
  •  the ability to create small “discussion” groups for larger classes
  •  the ability to link Perusall scoring to the grade book in Blackboard

In this article, two of your VU colleagues share their experiences with Perusall. Economics Professor Sara Gundersen talks about why she uses it, and Detra Becker (Library) provides the student’s point of view.


The Professor’s Perspective: Sara Gundersen 

I learned about Perusall from Amy Atchison (Political Science) who learned about it from Sara Gundersen (Economics), who learned about it at the Best Teachers Institute.

What Sara likes best about Perusall is that students come to class prepared to discuss the reading, because the discussion has already begun online.  In fact, Sara noticed that even students who are quiet in class are active in Perusall’s online discussions.  One quiet student regularly responded to other students’ posts with links to other articles. 

Sometimes students ask questions that other students can answer based on their own experience or knowledge.  But Sara posts comments too, which she considers is the fun part.  She may respond to student queries, add to a discussion, recommend an article for further reading, or tell students “this topic is exactly what we will be discussing in class on Friday.” 

One downside that Sara notes is that a few students may just skim the text and respond to other students’ comments. But compared to some students not even opening the text before class, she thinks this is progress.

She learned from former VU professor Allannah Karas about the option of allowing anonymous posts for readings on divisive topics. She finds that students are more willing to post what they really believe if they can be anonymous.  As the professor, she can still see exactly who posted what. She hopes to use this technique in an upcoming class on race and gender.  We both agreed, however, that for introductory courses like Core, it is better not to use anonymous posts, since we are building community.

There are many grading options with Perusall, Sara has chosen low stakes grading. So, for example, if one of her student posts anywhere from 1 to 3 remarks for 9 out of 10 readings, they get a collective grade of 90%.  

In general, Sara thinks Perusall is a great low cost, high benefit way to get students to engage with texts. She does not consider herself as great with technology, but she claims that it took her only three minutes to set up her first class. 


The Student’s Perspective: Detra Becker 

Detra Becker, Administrative Assistant to the Library Dean, has been taking graduate courses at VU for several years. Her Counseling 635 course with former VU professor Amanda Zelechoski, was her introduction to Perusall. During the COVID crisis, she felt that Perusall helped her to maintain interaction with the other students in the class​.

Her first assignment in Perusall was to read and comment on the syllabus. (This is a great way to get students to read your syllabus.) The professor read their comments and questions online so that when they discussed the syllabus for the first time in class, she could address students’ common concerns. 

Detra liked how she and her fellow students would share information, give examples from their personal lives, ask questions, or look up unfamiliar terms. Every time another student commented on one of her posts, she would  receive an email  notification.  This reassured her that her comments were taken seriously and also encouraged her to jump back into the conversation to respond.

In addition to journal articles and book chapters, the professor also posted student assignments for other students to provide feedback or to keep the conversation going.  

One downside  Detra noted is that both the professor and students got tired of posting by the end of the semester. She suggested that either limiting the number of assignments or the number of posts required could help. She very much enjoyed having the professor post comments or respond to questions, as it tended to elevate the level of discussion.


Both Detra and Sara would be happy to talk to any of you about their experience with Perusall.


Additional Resources  

  1. Here is the link to the Perusall website. From here you can set up a free class space in less than 15 minutes: Perusall  
  2. Here is a short introductory video (8 minutes) narrated by one of Perusall’s co-founders, Gary King, Director of Harvard’s Institute for Quantitative Social Science. He explains why they created Perusall to be the “only truly social e-reader” and how it works. About Perusall
  3. Finally, here are the instructions for linking Perusall to your Blackboard course. NOTE: VU has already set up Perusall as an LTI Tool Provider in Blackboard. So you can skip the first few steps and go directly to “Add a Perusall link to your Blackboard course.”  Linking Perusall to Blackboard