4 science-backed ways toward better learning (Hint: drop the highlighter)

David R. Topor, PhD, MS-HPEd

We have all done it. We are reading something we want to remember later and out comes the highlighter. Green, yellow, blue, sometimes multiple colors at once to differentiate the importance of words in sentences.

Even though highlighting is a widespread practice to help us learn and remember information, it actually does very little. In fact, in some situations highlighting can prevent us from using knowledge to make inferences in the future. Highlighting, it turns out, isn’t the only common strategy that doesn’t really help you learn. Others include underlining and rereading, which are popular study tools but are not effective.

So, what is a learner to do? Recent journal articles and the book Make It Stick point us in the direction of effective learning strategies. Here are four of them.

  1. Quiz yourself frequently on the material you read. Make flashcards of important topics you read. Generate questions and answers from the material and regularly quiz yourself. Keep retrieving knowledge from your memory. It will prevent forgetting and allow you to identify areas you do not know to focus future study.
  2. Space out your studying and quizzes. Spread out when you quiz yourself by hours, days, weeks, and months. As you gain mastery over the material, keep spacing the quizzes further apart.
  3. Quiz yourself on different topics in each study session. For example, if you are studying for a biology test, don’t just study the chapters in order. Mix in questions from different chapters as you study. Interleaving, or alternating topics, will improve your ability to remember and apply information in the future.
  4. Ask yourself questions while you are reading. These can include “Why?” questions. Why is this happening? Why does this make sense? Or why does this not make sense? Asking why will help you process the information you are reading and apply it in future situations. Questions can also help you process and make meaning of the information you have just read. For example, you can ask yourself, “What new facts did I just learn?” after reading a paragraph. “How do these new facts relate to facts I already know?” “What were the main themes of what I read?” “Why are these themes important?” “What further questions do I have?”

So, keep this article handy and use it to practice these methods. Quiz yourself on what you’ve just read, space out self-quizzes, keep quizzing yourself on the definitions of different strategies along with other information you are trying to learn, and ask yourself questions about the content, meaning, and applicability of the material while you are reading.

But please, put down the highlighter!

Sources

Make It Stick: The Science of Successful Learning. Harvard University Press, 2014.

Improving students’ learning with effective learning techniques: Promising directions form cognitive and educational psychology. Psychological Science in the Public Interest, 2013.

Inexpensive techniques to improve education: Applying cognitive psychology to enhance educational practice. Journal of Applied Research in Memory and Cognition, December 2012.

Comments:

  1. D. S. Cooper

    Thank you for this engaging article. However, I am puzzled by the somewhat extreme statements about highlighting, such as “drop the highlighter” in the title and “please put down the highlighter” at the end.

    These suggestions don’t seem to be supported by some of the research you cited under Sources. In particular, the cited article “Improving Students’ Learning With Effective Learning Techniques” from Psychological Science in the Public Interest (2013) says in its Overall Assessment of highlighting (including underlining):

    “It may help when students have the knowledge needed to highlight more effectively, or when texts are difficult…” (section 4.5)

    Wouldn’t it be better to tell your readers this, instead of just telling them to put down the highlighter?

  2. Linda

    Ha, What planet gives a person months to learn material? I fill 4 notebooks per WEEK with hand-outs, in addition to massive textbook and on-line research reading assignments. Highlighting gives a way to condense the material. I also create flashcards, and try to find a way to listen to the material- finding videos on youtube which tackle the same complicated material, for example, which has been by far the most valuable for my learning. I wonder how many types of learners this study observed.

  3. rabah

    Great article. It gives me a powerful methods to check my memory by asking my self some questions such as what, when and why and how .

  4. Harold E. Baker III, AIA

    Great article. I believe it. I took a home study course, after graduation, before taking my architects’ licensing exam … three 8 hour days and one 12 hour day design problem. I always hated multiple choice … considered myself a poor multiple choice test taker … of course that turned out to be the first 3 days. The course claimed that we remember about 70% of what we read. That gave me more confidence! It also discussed becoming “test wise ” by constantly taking small bite sized quizzes similar to the actual tests’ . Enormous help!!!!!!! Blazed through it at age 44. I did, and still do tons of underlining, writing in margins, some highlighting, drawing rectangles and circles around words, phrases, sentances … it’s a mess! I find myself at age 75 doing less and less of this as you seem to suggest, and I believe that it works better. I also seem to learn, comprehend and retain more by reading backwards … that is, reading the last paragraph, then the preceeding one and so on. Don’t know why this works so well for me, but it does! This also causes me to read faster, longer and finish more articles, essays, chapters and so on.

    Hope this helps someone!

    Happy reading, studying and learning!

    Can I attend Harvard GSD now? It could help your diversity and enclusiveness big time. Plus give you an interesting case study about the increased creativity in experienced humans.

    Harold E Baker III, AIA

  5. Robert A. Fairey, B.A. J.D.

    I question the assumptions that highlighting and re-reading do not help memorizing. To prepare for the bar exam requisite for license to practice law, I used both to good effect. This exam was designed to be more difficult than the law school exams I had taken. I highlighted in paperback books intended for use in bar exam preparation. I highlighted in 2 colors to indicate matter I would re-read in 2nd and 3rd readings of each book. Of approximately 200 who took the exam with me my grade was the 2nd highest. Of course, I had no way to control for innate individual differences. (Perhaps the fact that the U of Texas Law School used the Harvard case-book method was the difference.?) That exam was in 1957. I am 89 and think my cognition is intact.

  6. Judith Gunn Bronson

    I used these tricks constantly in college and graduate school and then for some reason forgot them! Thanks for the reminders: they will help me with my Great Courses work.

  7. Mary Norby

    Article doesn’t explain why highlighting is wrong!