Activity: Developing Students’ Reading Skills with Talis Elevate (blog)

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Jamie Wood – School of History & Heritage – Associate Professor – Staff Profile

Reading is fundamental to all subjects at university, but especially to History and Classical Studies, two disciplines that place considerable emphasis on engaging with primary and secondary sources. This case study addresses how Talis Elevate was used to develop students’ skills in the core disciplinary skill of close reading.


I have been using Talis Elevate for a final-year undergraduate module that has been running since September 2018. There have been three iterations of the module, the latest one during the pandemic, half of which was delivered using a blended approach and half entirely online. The module is structured into a series of 12 two-hour seminars. Three one-hour lectures are interspersed to introduce the module and to prepare students for assessments. Students are expected to do preparatory readings in advance of class (usually a primary source and/or a secondary article/ book chapter for a total of 20-30 pages of reading). Talis Elevate is used to engage students in these preparatory reading activities


At the start of the module, I introduce the students to Talis Elevate in the opening lecture and they are given the opportunity to ‘have a go’ in advance of the first seminar, during which we discuss what they had found and how they had used the tool. This provides a low-stakes opportunity for troubleshooting and enables me to show the students what I’m looking for in terms of level of annotation.

For all subsequent seminars, students are required to use the link for the weekly reading in Talis Elevate and add 3 annotations. They are asked to annotate parts of the text that address points of interest, questions that the text raises for them, elements that they didn’t quite understand, connections to other parts of the module, and/or anything at all that strikes them as noteworthy. They are also encouraged to engage with one another by responding to and building on earlier comments.

Prior to class, I read the students’ annotations and use them to help me to decide what we will look at during the seminars. This helps me to make the seminars more relevant to the students’ interests than they might otherwise have been by picking out elements of sources where their comments had clustered. I can also correct misunderstandings, although the group as a whole tends to work together to ‘figure out’ the text. Importantly, this also gives me the chance to see what students think of the reading ‘live’ (or almost ‘live’), which is not only helpful pedagogically, but also fascinating as they build up their understanding of and engagement with the topic.

It’s important to note that the students’ contributions on Talis Elevate are graded, as part of a ‘participation mark’ element of the module’s assessment regime. This has been vital to driving student engagement because they can see that they receive a reward for the work that they do outside class (as well as contributions in class, whether in-person or online). It enables me to get a better sense of their overall engagement in the module than previously, when their reading was pretty much invisible to me.

Outcomes and benefits


Talis Elevate has proven to be a really effective tool for enabling students to engage in collaborative close reading in preparation for seminars. Student feedback has been positive, emphasising the following elements:

  1. Learning from each other, especially getting access to different perspectives and interpretations (‘It [Talis Elevate] helped as a convenient place for notes and was good for class collaboration and sharing/building of ideas’ – student feedback) 
  2. Generating a knowledge bank that they can return to later for assessments (‘Because I participated more on Talis, I knew sooner what to base my research essay on unlike other modules when I found that harder. It also was a useful repository of notes which made planning the essay a lot easier. The comments also provided me with more to discuss in the seminars, helping to develop my ideas and understanding better.’),
  3. Integrating ‘homework’ and in-class activity so they are able to see that their contributions are relevant to the module as a whole.

It’s also worth noting that research we’ve conducted suggests that even very engaged and high achieving students experience a sense of vulnerability around online engagement – they find the process of sharing their annotations as inducing a certain level of anxiety. Next time I teach the module, I will do more work to address this issue.

A screenshot of the Talis Elevate analytics showing how each article has been engaged with by students.
A screenshot of the Talis Elevate analytics showing how each article has been engaged with by students.

Top tips:

  • Wherever possible, plan for the tools use – both you and the students will experience them as an integral part of the module rather than an add-on.
  • At upper levels, make reading tasks using Talis Elevate ‘open’ so that students can explore texts for themselves and use one another to develop their understanding.
  • Reduce the amount of reading that you set the students. I get much higher engagement with shorter readings (20-30 pages max.) and try only to use 1 Talis Elevate link (i.e. you may want to put several shorter readings into one file rather than having students click in and out of several – some just won’t bother).
  • Assess it to reward students for their labour and because it gives a fairer indication of overall engagement on the module than pure in-class participation (I combine the two). Some students appreciate this, especially the quiet ones.
  • Make it relevant – feed what you can see, in the online annotations, into class. This shows them that their thoughts have worth. Personally, I know what I think about the texts we’re reading so am much more interested in exploring what the students think.


Digital Education Support Site | Resource hub – Talis Elevate | Internal Link

Making Digital History | Talis Elevate | External Link

‘Putting the Joy Back into Reading’ | Times Higher Education Article | External Link

‘Active Online Reading Project’ | External Link