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Highlighters: To Use Or Not To Use

I love highlighting my books. I have a green Pilot FriXion highlighter that I usually keep tucked into whatever book I'm reading – if it's non-fiction – to brighten up those key phrases that I want to mark for future reference.

So, I was a little surprised recently to see the results of a psychological study that found highlighting is an ineffective way to study and learn information.

In the study, students who highlighted text did not perform any better than students who did not. And, students who highlighted too much material may actually have missed out on important points within a text, according to the report published in the journal for the Association of Psychological Science.

The researchers said they included highlighting in the study of effective learning methods because highlighting (or underlining) is a widespread habit among students. Although a large percentage highlight their texts when studying, few seem to gain any benefit from the practice because simply re-reading text does not imprint it, according to the study.

As education writer Grace Fleming put it a while back:

Highlighting does make important information stand out on a page, but that doesn’t do you  much good if you don’t do something active with that information. Reading highlighted words again and again is not active enough.

But, there was one caveat in the study: Highlighting can help students (or anyone else) who know how to highlight properly. And what is the proper way? By identifying the key thoughts of a particular paragraph or passage in the text, then highlighting only that phrase. That way, students can focus on the ideas, not rote memorization.

OK, now personally, the idea that highlighting is not a good way of retaining information makes sense to me. I don't highlight something in a book because I want to make sure I remember it. In fact, I highlight because I 'm pretty sure I will forget.

The idea is that I'll be able to easily find the passage and remind myself what it says when I do forget. It's more a bookmark than an attempt at memorization.

Apparently, though, educators teach highlighting specifically as a learning method, which is what the authors of the study suggest is the problem. They say that since students are likely going to continue the highlighting habit, they should at least be taught effective highlighting techniques.

Seems like sound reasoning.

What do you highlighters out there think?

One thought on “Highlighters: To Use Or Not To Use”

  • millicent

    While I adore some of the highlighter shades, I just cannot bring myself to mark up books. I remember having to buy used textbooks at university and being very distracted by previous owners's markings. However, like you, I have to "highlight", aka make note of, passages that seem high priority. The small sticky notes were a sort of compromise, albeit unsatisfactory. They are opaque, so the underlying text is completely covered. But my saving grace arrived with the advent of the tiny transparent tape flags. They come in bright colors very similar to highlighter markers and are removable. When they introduced the smallest width ones, I was sold. My OCD was soothed :)

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