If you are reading this article for anything more than a comprehensive understanding, put down the highlighter … unless you know how to properly use it.
There are infinite ways for a student to study, some effective or ineffective depending on the person using them. Perhaps the most prevalent and widespread of these study aides is the highlighter, as common among students as the pencil or pen. Being available in a variety of neon colors, the highlighter is easily marketed and highly popular among students of all ages. From the pencil cases of middle school to the coffee cup on a professor’s desk, the highlighter is a mainstay. However, recent studies have called into question the effectiveness of the highlighter as a study aide.
Author John Dunlosky of Kent State University writes, “Students everywhere, put down those highlighters and pick up some flashcards!” in his study published by the Association of Psychological Science. His study found that “spreading out your studying over time and quizzing yourself on material before the big test” have “been shown to boost students’ performance across many different kinds of tests,” which was “demonstrated for students of all ages.”
Even when highlighters were first created and challenged the flashcard as the “go to” study aide, there were questions about the effectiveness of highlighters. An article from the Journal of Applied Psychology in 1974 defined the concept of highlighting as “each student serving as his [or her] own judge to which and how much material should be isolated for study emphasis.” The experiment “suggests that isolation may lead to better retention of the emphasized portions as well as concomitanly poorer retention of the remaining portions.”
The study also emphasized that the “choice of material for active highlighting by the students did reflect a relatively high degree of discrimination between statements suitable for objective examination and those serving merely as connecting discourse.”
Highlighting was found productive, if done correctly. It was productive if the highlighting was “done for the reader but not if done by the reader since he [or she] must guess what to encode while being uninformed about the contents of a subsequent (retention) test.”
Although highlighters were found effective, that was only if used properly. So how does one “properly” use a highlighter?
Andrée Catalfamo, Ph.D., a reading specialist in adult literacy and reading/writing for college in the CTLE, believes that highlighters can be helpful but are often misused. She was first introduced to the highlighter in college, although “[She] didn’t know how to use them.” She uses highlighters today for learning terminology or key points, but “[does not] “go crazy with it.”
Catalfamo said highlighters should not be used as a primary study tool. Granted that “we’re all visual learners these days,” she believes “the mistake students make is that they use it [highlighting] as their only step” when studying. Nor should entire chapters be neon yellow, pink, purple or green. Not every word is important, and students should “step back from the highlighter.” The only highlighted words should be important concepts, key words or phrases, words or phrases that trigger their memory.
Highlighters should be used to organize and categorize, to discern back-up information for points or as a tab to find information quickly. However, they are not conducive to understanding material. Highlighting does not allow for interconnected points to be connected throughout reading, merely key words or phrases. Catalfamo recommends that to understand information, students should chunk information (not merely definitions) into 250-400 words in put those chunks into their own words.
Highlighters can help with retention of material, if used properly and sparingly. Although effective with key terms, organization or at emphasizing trigger words, highlighting should not be a student’s sole study tactic.