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

June 1, 2017

About the Author

photo of David R. Topor, PhD, MS-HPEd

David R. Topor, PhD, MS-HPEd, Contributor

Dr. David Topor is a clinical psychologist, and the associate director for healthcare professional education at the VA Boston Healthcare System. He is an assistant professor in the department of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School. See Full Bio
View all posts by David R. Topor, PhD, MS-HPEd


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D. S. Cooper
June 25, 2017

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?

June 9, 2017

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.

June 7, 2017

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 .

Harold E. Baker III, AIA
June 6, 2017

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

Robert A. Fairey, B.A. J.D.
June 5, 2017

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.

Judith Gunn Bronson
June 5, 2017

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.

Mary Norby
June 5, 2017

Article doesn’t explain why highlighting is wrong!

Commenting has been closed for this post.

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