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The surprising truth about using highlighting to study

The surprising truth about using highlighting to study

5 min read
  • Study skills & exam prep

The biggest key to optimising your students’ learning is teaching them how to use their memory to its full advantage. Remembering information well is crucial to improving knowledge and learning – but students may be studying using ineffective techniques when trying to learn new information.

You may have seen your students use all kinds of different coloured highlighters to revise their notes right before an exam. But how effective is this, really?

What does the research say?

Compared to other learning strategies, such as Retrieval Practice, research has shown that highlighting to improve learning and memory tends to fare quite poorly (so influential is one of these studies, we actually made it the first one we covered in our book). It is certainly not a study technique that we would recommend at the expense of others.

However, two recent studies have helped refine our view on highlighters. The first, which is a review of the previously mentioned study, confirmed that highlighting was indeed less effective than other techniques, but crucially noted that “even the lowest learning techniques are sufficiently effective to be included in a student’s toolbox of techniques.

The second recent study, published only a few months ago, reviewed which conditions different highlighting strategies work best. Generally, they looked at two different types of highlighting approaches:

Learner-generated highlighting

The first type of text used in the studies didn’t have any pre-highlighted information. This encouraged students to highlight key information that they thought was important from the text themselves. In this case, highlighting requires the students to engage with the active cognitive process of selecting only the important information for their working memory to process and then store in their long-term memory.

Instructor-provided highlighting

The second type of text used in the studies was presented to students with the important information already highlighted. This type of text intended to guide students’ cognitive process of selecting the important information. The aim is to free up some of students’ cognitive load so they can use it to process the new information and connect new ideas to previously-learned information. This would help students transfer the new information to their long-term memory.

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What do the results show?

1. Learner-generated highlighting improved information retention, but did not improve comprehension

The research suggests that students who did the highlighting themselves remembered more information that those who simply read the text. However, both groups had similar levels of comprehension.

This is because learner-generated highlighting encourages students to focus on identifying the important information, rather than on linking and integrating the new information with previously-learnt ideas.

2. Learner-generated highlighting only seems to work for older students

Research also found that using learner-generated highlighting improved the amount of information remembered for university students, but not for younger students. This is because less experienced learners may be selecting the wrong information to highlight.

The good news if you have younger students is that training students on how to highlight the correct information improved the amount of information they remembered.

3. Using a supplementary learning strategy to learner-generated highlighting improves memory retention

Research suggests that using a second learning strategy, such as note-taking or creating a graphic organiser, can improve the amount of information that students remember from a text. This is because highlighting allows students to identify key information but does not improve comprehension of concepts or ideas. For students to truly learn, they also need to use strategies that help them to understand information in addition to highlighting.

4. When students review previously highlighted material, learning does not improve

One of the most notable findings was that reviewing material that students had previously highlighted did not improve the amount of information that they remembered. This is because simply re-reading previously highlighted information does not involve any active cognitive processes – so, information is unlikely to be transferred into long-term memory.

5. Instructor-provided highlighting improves both information retention and comprehension

Students who studied information that was highlighted by an instructor remembered and understood more information than students who simply read the text.

This is because when the correct information is highlighted, this frees up cognitive capacity to process the new information and connect ideas. Therefore, it’s more likely students understand the new material and can transfer it to their long-term memory. This effect was found regardless of student age. 

How to use highlighting to actually learn

What does this mean in the classroom?

There are many ways to apply the findings from this research in your classroom to help your students make the most out of their learning and use learning strategies in the correct way. Here are some tips:

Consider highlighting the key information to students

When you give your students hand-outs with text, highlight the key information and facts. This will allow your students to free up their cognitive capacity and focus on understanding and retaining the new information instead of trying to distinguish key information from the rest of the text.

Encourage students to use other effective learning strategies

Highlighting alone does not really help students understand the content on a deep level. Make sure that your students know that highlighting their notes is not enough on its own.

Instead you can encourage your students to use strategies such as dual codingRetrieval Practiceand elaborative interrogation to truly understand what they are learning and make the most out of their study time.

Check what your students have highlighted

Highlighting can help students remember more, but only if done correctly. Get your students to check with you that they have correctly identified and highlighted the important information before they rely on it for studying.

Final thoughts

Highlighting is not necessarily a bad learning strategy. It is probably better thought of as a very limited one.

Like many other techniques, it can be used in a more effective way if done right. This probably means to use it selectively and sparingly. You can implement this in your classroom by presenting students with information where the key points have already been highlighted.

The key to effective learner-generated highlighting is making sure that your students are engaging with the material enough so that information get transferred to their long-term memory. If we do this, hopefully we can move away from “colouring in” and more towards an efficient and effective way of highlighting.

About the editor

Bradley Busch

Bradley Busch

Bradley Busch is a Chartered Psychologist and a leading expert on illuminating Cognitive Science research in education. As Director at InnerDrive, his work focuses on translating complex psychological research in a way that is accessible and helpful. He has delivered thousands of workshops for educators and students, helping improve how they think, learn and perform. Bradley is also a prolific writer: he co-authored four books including Teaching & Learning Illuminated and The Science of Learning, as well as regularly featuring in publications such as The Guardian and The Telegraph.

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