Writing in the Margins

By Greta Steber

Yellow HighlighterRemember when you were a student sitting down with your textbook, perhaps in a chair or at a desk, preparing to read your assigned chapters for the week? You may have had some notebook paper and pencil to write down notes or one of those brightly colored markers to highlight pertinent or important text (of course, marking in a textbook was not condoned, but we all did it, didn’t we?)

As you read, what were some of the thoughts and questions that came to your mind? Did you write them down on your piece of paper or possibly in the book itself along the page margins?

Annotating is a metacognitive skill that most people have used at some point in their lives, either as a student or professionally.  According to Nick Otten (2011) "What the reader gets from annotating is a deeper initial reading and an understanding of the text that lasts. You can deliberately engage the author in conversation and questions, maybe stopping to argue, pay a compliment, or clarify an important issue—much like having a teacher or storyteller with you in the room."

Have you ever thought about including an activity in your course that encourages students to "write in the margins" and capitalizes on this skill? Allen Wilcoxon (S. Wilcoxon, personal communication, January 20, 2012), professor and chair of Counselor Education at The University of Alabama-Tuscaloosa, Alabama, regularly employs margin item activities in his courses:

"The margin items have been some of the most 'sincere' notations I have seen for class, and I think it will be a mainstay for any course I teach with substantive reading."

How to Implement Writing in the Margins

As part of the weekly reading assignment, direct your students to highlight text and jot down thoughts or questions in the margins as they read. If students prefer not to write in their textbook, they may reference passages and write their thoughts and questions on sticky notes and place them in the margins.

Have students post one or two of their margin items, in the form of a question or statement, to a class blog created in RamCT Blackboard, CSU's learning management system. To further the learning, require students to respond in a substantive way to at least one of their classmate's posted margin items.

Not only will this activity engage students more deeply with the course content, it will also capture areas of misunderstanding from which you, the instructor, can focus on the next time the class is offered.


Otten, Nick (2011, October 5). How and Why to Annotate a Book. Retrieved from http://apcentral.collegeboard.com/apc/public/courses/teachers_corner/197454.html