Monday, June 20, 2016

A cursory examination of Perusall

I have been an admirer of Harvard physics professor Eric Mazur ever since I got a copy of his book, Peer Instruction, back in the late 1990s. I found that the more I implemented his teaching strategies in my physics class, the more my students learned.

I was excited when I heard he would be speaking at the teacher outreach event in San Jose hosted by the Optical Society of America. Most of his talk was from his famous “Confessions of a Converted Lecturer” speech that I have seen before. However, toward the end he announced a new initiative called He said for Peer instruction to be the most successful, students need to do some preparation before coming to class. For most classes, this means reading a textbook or similar resource. The problem arises when only some students actually complete the reading assignment. Perusall was developed to solve this problem.

Students log in to Perusall and read their textbook or any pdf reading their teacher uploads. They can print it out or download it. As they read online, they can highlight text and graphics that confuses them and ask questions. They also can highlight and add comments that others might find interesting or useful. They can link to other resources that they think might be helpful. They are put in groups of 20. Their peers can see their highlights and click on them to see the question, comment, or other information. They can respond if they want to. As Dr. Mazur described this I thought, what a nightmare to grade. He then revealed that Perusall uses artificial intelligenence software to automatically grade comments. Each comment is assigned a 1, 2, or 3 depending on how it relates to the highlighted text. The instructor can download a spreadsheet that has the scores for each student.

After hearing this I knew I would have to try it. Perusall is mainly meant for use by colleges as an online textbook purchase. This wouldn’t work well for me because I recently purchased new physics textbooks. I couldn’t ask my students buy it online. I decided to select readings from the open source physics textbook found on Open Stax. I asked Perusall for an account and they set me up for free. I uploaded my first reading for our circular motion unit. I perused the help files on Perusall and uploaded some so students could more easily find them. I gave out the login information and waited to see how my students would respond.

The response was very positive. The comments started appearing right away and they looked thoughtful and helpful for the most part. As we did more assignments, they got better at pleasing the artificial intelligent agent and got higher scores. I posted some example “3” and “1” comments so they could see what was deemed good and not so good. One problem is they don’t see the score of a comment until the assignment ends. I found I could release the grades early, allowing them to get feedback and respond to it by adding more comments are editing the ones they already did. I wouldn’t do this for every assignment but it did help them improve their skills for this new learning tool. I made short screencast showing the comments on the circular motion assignment:

I did not do any formal research about the effectiveness of Perusall on my student's learning or engagement. I do know that most of my students actually did read the assignment and posted hundreds of applicable comments. Mazur did research of Perusall use at Harvard and found that it was effective. He also said they ended the study early because the students without Perusall were complaining when they saw what their friends were doing in the other physics sections. This study has not been published.

Perusall is such a new and different tool that I thought it would be a good idea to let you try it out. You can join a class I set up for physics teachers and others that are interested. Just go to, create a login with the 3 options or using your email address, then enter the access code: BURNS-2858. Your assignment will be to read and comment on a physics education research paper by Joe Redish called "Changing Student Ways of Knowing". I will make it due on 9/1/16 and release the grades after that and several times before. I also uploaded some of the documents I made available to my students that give more information about using Perusall.

If you would like to give Perusall a try I urge you to contact them and ask if you can use it at no cost like I have been doing. Any public domain textbooks or articles in pdf format can be used. 


Patricio Poblete said...

I am intrigued by the way you phrase this: "As we did more assignments, they got better at pleasing the artificial intelligent agent and got higher scores". So, did the make more insightful observations, or did they just learn how to game the automatic grading system?

Dan Burns said...

It was mainly from them realizing that they needed to reflect the highlighted text in their comment. Other changes were longer posts. The main way to improve scores was to post more than the minimum required. The grade was based only on the top scoring comments.

Anonymous said...

Perusall, es una plataforma la cuál no te deja señalar lo que quieres, si deseas señalar solo un texto al final y del mismo al inicio de la siguiente página ésta no te deja, señala cualquier cosa menos lo que quieres, solo si es algo que en dicha página está en el centro o inicio, es señalada de manera correcta, además de que a veces el mismo sistema no te deja subir imágenes , actualmente me encuentro obligada a usar lo llamado "PERUSALL", en lo personal creo que deben mejorar ciertos aspecto de ésta. Saludos.