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Highlighting Is a Waste of Time: The Best and Worst Learning Techniques

Some of the most common strategies for retaining knowledge are the least effective, according to a new report

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In a world as fast-changing and full of information as our own, every one of us — from schoolchildren to college students to working adults — needs to know how to learn well. Yet evidence suggests that most of us don’t use the learning techniques that science has proved most effective. Worse, research finds that learning strategies we do commonly employ, like rereading and highlighting, are among the least effective.

(MORE: How to Use Technology to Make You Smarter)

The scientific literature evaluating these techniques stretches back decades and across thousands of articles. It’s far too extensive and complex for the average parent, teacher or employer to sift through. Fortunately, a team of five leading psychologists have now done the job for us. In a comprehensive report released on Jan. 9 by the Association for Psychological Science, the authors, led by Kent State University professor John Dunlosky, closely examine 10 learning tactics and rate each from high to low utility on the basis of the evidence they’ve amassed. Here is a quick guide to the report’s conclusions:

The Worst
Highlighting and underlining led the authors’ list of ineffective learning strategies. Although they are common practices, studies show they offer no benefit beyond simply reading the text. Some research even indicates that highlighting can get in the way of learning; because it draws attention to individual facts, it may hamper the process of making connections and drawing inferences. Nearly as bad is the practice of rereading, a common exercise that is much less effective than some of the better techniques you can use. Lastly, summarizing, or writing down the main points contained in a text, can be helpful for those who are skilled at it, but again, there are far better ways to spend your study time. Highlighting, underlining, rereading and summarizing were all rated by the authors as being of “low utility.”

The Best
In contrast to familiar practices like highlighting and rereading, the learning strategies with the most evidence to support them aren’t well known outside the psych lab. Take distributed practice, for example. This tactic involves spreading out your study sessions, rather than engaging in one marathon. Cramming information at the last minute may allow you to get through that test or meeting, but the material will quickly disappear from memory. It’s much more effective to dip into the material at intervals over time. And the longer you want to remember the information, whether it’s two weeks or two years, the longer the intervals should be.

(MORE: ‘Implicit Learning’: How to Remember More Without Trying)

The second learning strategy that is highly recommended by the report’s authors is practice testing. Yes, more tests — but these are not for a grade. Research shows that the mere act of calling information to mind strengthens that knowledge and aids in future retrieval. While practice testing is not a common strategy — despite the robust evidence supporting it — there is one familiar approach that captures its benefits: using flash cards. And now flash cards can be presented in digital form, via apps like Quizlet, StudyBlue and FlashCardMachine. Both spaced-out learning, or distributed practice, and practice tests were rated as having “high utility” by the authors.

The Rest
The remainder of the techniques evaluated by Dunlosky and his colleagues fell into the middle ground — not useless, but not especially effective either. These include mental imagery, or coming up with pictures that help you remember text (which is time-consuming and only works with text that lends itself to images); elaborative interrogation, or asking yourself “why” as you read (which is kind of annoying, like having a 4-year-old tugging at your sleeve); self-explanation, or forcing yourself to explain the text in detail instead of passively reading it over (its effectiveness depends on how complete and accurate your explanations are); interleaved practice, or mixing up different types of problems (there is not much evidence to show that this is helpful, outside of learning motor tasks); and lastly the keyword mnemonic, or associating new vocabulary words, usually in a foreign language, with an English word that sounds similar — so, for example, learning the French word for key, la clef, by imagining a key on top of a cliff (which is a lot of work to remember a single word).

All these techniques were rated of “moderate” to “low” utility by Dunlosky et al because either there isn’t enough evidence yet to be able to recommend them or they’re just not a very good use of your time. Much better, say the authors, to spread out your learning, ditch your highlighter and get busy with your flash cards.

108 comments
austin.frazier44
austin.frazier44

Two effective learning strategies i have leaned  threw this article is that using flash cards is helpful when you are trying to study or rehearse . Another learning strategy i learned is that is highlighting and rereading is one of the best ways you can improve in class, your work and your studying .One moderate way is that you can use fun study games and play these games with your friends other groups in your classes .

gorekamara
gorekamara

 I agree that spending more time with lessons and frequently assessing oneself can be a very effective way to study, because when assessment drives instruction, learning is more evident. However,  I was surprised to find out that highlighting and underlining passages are a waste of time. I've always thought that they help one to focus on a point of interest and helped in reviews. 

It is understandable that the improper use of underlining and highlighting can result in the fragmentation of concepts and theories resulting in an undesirable outcome for a hard-working student. But a student with the proper understanding of how well written ideas are put together is not likely to ignore the subject, topic, supporting ideas and conclusion in a given passage as she/he underlines or highlights a point of interest. She/he will understand that the students' primary job is to derive textual meaning from the author - not selective points of personal interest.

TonyJack
TonyJack

This article and research seems to be confusing memorization and reference techniques for learning techniques to understand the subject. Also how effective some techniques are or not could depend on the personality of the individual.

t3rance
t3rance

Nice article. I'm a big fan of Anki flashcard program. It's available as a mobile app and for a desktop environment. You can make your own decks for whatever subject that you are studying. If you are studying Chinese, I would recommend Chineeeasy Flashcards. ( website: http://chineeeasy.com/flashcards.html/ or on http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/1623143330/ ). It's a deck of cards you can use to study Chinese, not only as flashcards, but also as a game.


Read more: http://ideas.time.com/2013/01/09/highlighting-is-a-waste-of-time-the-best-and-worst-learning-techniques/#ixzz2VrtKXmKt

IPlayMathGames
IPlayMathGames

This is a wonderful article.  As a parent and student, I've know intuitively for a long time that flash cards work.  I found the distributed practice aspect particularly interesting.  What I have found is that it's hard sometimes to get kids to sit-down and do flashcards, so some sort of game with a "flash-card-like" feature fits well here.

One that I like to use is Tic Tac Math (https://itunes.apple.com/us/artist/ipmg-publishing/id356838921) which is a simple game that offers all of the benefits of flashcards but it's a lot more fun.  A lot of parents tell me that they require kids to win 3 Tic Tac Math games before they can move-on to playing their favorite game such as Angry Birds.  A built in win counter makes this easy.

Just a quick idea.  Teachers love the game too with kids in school that use iPads.

JeffreyGitomer
JeffreyGitomer

TOTAL hi-brow BS - highlighting rules reinforcing, remembering, recalling, and referenced-re-reading - this woman is self serving and wrong - Jeffrey Gitomer author of 12 books

vergamark
vergamark

As law students we have to read a lot of jurisprudence. Highlighting and summarizing help us identify the salient points for our digests of cases.  

Axolotlwobblemaggot
Axolotlwobblemaggot

This research is nearly completely conducted through across-subjects designs.  Thus, the prescriptions that come out of it work for a hypothetical individual who is completely average in every way.  Any one individual's best learning can, and probably will, be highly idiosyncratic.  Thus, this article is quite misleading, since its tone implies what's best for YOU personally.

gns100sl
gns100sl

After reading some of the comments I wonder how is using flash cards (a better technique) different than highlighting?

kuljay
kuljay

This article confuses Learning with Memorization. Selective highlighting is very helpful in learning, especially when you need to reread. (Authors like this cause us to have little respect for the field of Psychology.)

JanicePardueFreeman
JanicePardueFreeman

I'm a tactile learner and I DO benefit from highlighting important text.

ijbtheterrible
ijbtheterrible

FOR THE AVERAGE PERSON , highlighting allows us to retain by going back as we need facts and locate them . About testing by professors, In my sophomore college year, I learn my teachers method of testing and marked all small items that were possible trick questions or extra point questions. ( remote one line statements that caught the teacher's eye) At the end of the semester I reread all special marks out of 400 pages and not only made over 100 but caught a statement that Thomas Aquinas was called the Dumb Ox , by who I no longer remember but that was 51 years ago. Even the genius in our class missed that one and for the only time I had the highest score in the class. Highlighting saved me. as the old saying goes, "Different strokes for different folks. "  

mdm
mdm

Let's not confuse memorization with higher level learning here.  Great tips for recall and retaining information, but this would just be the beginning of the journey for synthesizing and  truly understanding concepts and applying knowledge.

bt0558
bt0558

I agree with every word posted by argayah, and would humbly suggest that VerDidad's comments suffer from the very issues of which argayah is accused.

The article is I feel poorly written and does itself suffer from a problem prevalent in the United States. That problem is the belief that if something is written by a person with a P.H.D. then it must be accurate and one should take not of it. VerDidad's comments are even worse however in that it is suggested that one should take note of a journalist's short summary of what is a complex and sometimes confusing academic paper.
As a UK trained teacher, I have gone to the paper that was the basis of the article and i believe that the article is flawed in that the sweeping generalisations made by the paper are compounded by the article. The paper makes  extremely  interesting reading but must itself be see in context. 

Not only is there the issue of defining "learning", but there is also the issue quite rightly addressed by argayah that all learners are different and some learners may be happy with highlighting for instance.There is also the issue that learning is not just about memorising information, and sometimes the learning process is a long and complex one. US textbooks are often written by academics who have little understanding of  how best frame information for learning, simply using frameworks that have been developed by P.H.D.s. It is often necessary to filter information found in a textbook to avoid the masses of information included simply to justify a price tag of $100-$200 as the book was writtn in order to make a profit not simply to educate.

This article is about psychologists and cognitive scientists looking at how certain strategies for individuals to be able to evaluate those strategies for their own use to improve their own learning. Quite how generalisable the findings of the paper are to individuals in individual circumstances is debateable.

An example of an issue I have with the way that the article interprets the paper is this. Identifying cause-effect relationships between elements of the learning process which is broad and deep is difficult if not impossible in many cases.Highlighting text  as an aid to analysing a text for later reading is clearly a useful tool. In itself it did not accomplish a learning outcome but it may well have enabled learning to take place at a later stage in the process.

As a professional educator, I find it sad that administrators and teachers seem happy at times to simply take simplified versions of what would otherwise be very useful findings, vulgarise them and then apply them in ways that are inappropriate and often damaging. Gardeners multiple intelligences, learning styles (VAK) and much of the meta analysis done by Marzano are good examples and i have seen gardener and Marzano complain about this is various places.

I advise anyone who beleieves this to be a useful article to ignore it's headline, ignore it's analysis and to go to the original academic paper.

The academic paper talks about the possibility of the US education system being in crisis, which it clearly is, a situation highlighted by the recent Pearson global league table of  education systems which put the US at 17. If you guys took more notice of argayah and took less notice of people such as verDidad then maybe things would be a little better. Actually understanding education, learning and the implications of academic research rather than relying on journalism for advice would also help i think.

Thanks for the opportunity to comment




GlennHanna
GlennHanna

I recently discovered StudyBlue.  I had missed a few days of class and a test was coming up over the material specifically covered in lecture.  I searched the internet for those note sharing websites, but they charge money.  I would have been fine with paying some money for the notes, but there was no way to tell what exactly I was buying.  It is sort of like buying a mystery package, maybe I get the notes I needed, maybe not.  But you can't buy a set of notes, you have to subscribe to the service.  What a scam.  So I looked elsewhere and found StudyBlue, which is free.  You can search your specific class at your school and find other people contributing material.  I pleasantly surprised to find notes, flash cards, and tests to help learn the material.  If that wasn't good enough, I found a bonus in that StudyBlue has a phone app.  So while I was walking from my car and all the way across campus to take my test, I was getting some last minute flash card studying in off my phone.  It was a great way to learn the material.  I highly recommend.

BobbiJames
BobbiJames

Highlighting and underlining is good to aid in following directions.  If you want to emphasize important facts in a passage, note taking is much more effective.  Rewriting the information really forces the learner to take ownership of it.  It with also encourage them to be more critical of what is essential info since it's more labor intensive than highlighting.

I have found pretesting extremely effective.  I give a test in the exact same format as the actual test a few days before and score it without recording the grade.  Students then see what they need to study further or ask for further instruction.  They will then correct their mistakes and resubmit it for a grade.

jschwartz620
jschwartz620

Well, I mean, it doesn't really take any time.

juangulo731
juangulo731

key in french is not la clef its cle with an accent mark (/)on the e

OzarkGranny
OzarkGranny

I printed the article, highlighted the important parts and gave it to my grandkids ...

OzarkGranny
OzarkGranny

I mean if you are going to highlight blank pages like the photo above, it's hard to imagine you will learn anything.  How many tax dollars were wasted to figure this out?

passe
passe

I find highlighting to be very effective as a technique to review before an exam at least. But when I watched my kids highlight their texts, I noticed that they highlight way, way too much. It should be used sparingly, to highlight only key words and concepts that will (hopefully) jog your memory when you review the text. I use the same strategy for note-taking in class, my notes come out looking like an old computer flow chart. If you highlight the whole page, or close to it, you may as well just re-read the material. Used wisely, highlighting is just fine.

curran.rob
curran.rob

What's your overall studying strategy? Effective learning in college is all about managing the opportunity cost of two scarce resources: time and mental energy -- "If I do this, then I can't do that." All subjects are not created equal. We take many courses merely because they are "required." We rarely apply the so-called "knowledge" after the final exam. Of course we highlight and cram our way through such courses. Why? So we have more time and energy to devote to important disciplines. Why waste time "making connections and drawing inferences" in relatively unimportant fields of study?

DavidP.Baldwin
DavidP.Baldwin

I am sorry but I like highlighting.  Of course I might do it a bit different than others.  I usually remember text from my reading that "stuckout" and need a way to find it quickly because there is a major point  or valuble information there.   I don't want to re-read the whole damn book to find it so I look skim the Highligthed places ntil I find it.  BUT if you highlight everything this does not help....  Of course when in Military school we had a "forced" study hall each evening and the way I did it was to rewrite my notes from the days class and add information from the Textbook to the new notes... Then in the future I only had to read the notes and they focused on what the instructor had taught.

MickeyCashen
MickeyCashen

I would add that this list is very simplistic.  First you should identify which of the five dimensions of learning are involved.  These range from rote memorization to abstraction and self-awareness of mental processing.  The best way to learn rote stuff is different than the best way to learn how to use the Periodic Table to determine the relative activity of metals.  Additionally, studies show that the more senses that are involved in learning, the faster we learn in general.  But some people learn better with "hands on" activities and others with reading - and it also varies by WHAT they are learning.  So the best technique for teaching one person is NOT necessarily the best technique for teaching a group.

MickeyCashen
MickeyCashen

"The scientific literature evaluating these techniques stretches back decades and across thousands of articles. It’s far too extensive and complex for the average parent, teacher or employer to sift through."  Does it occur to you, Annie Paul, that teachers have taken cognition and learning classes and have been taught the key ways people learn and which ways work best utilizing seeing, reading, hearing, kinesthetic interaction, etc?  Or is that thought "too extensive and complex" for journalism majors to fathom?

eetom
eetom

Very good article.  I am thinking of printing a copy, highlight the main point, and then keep it for future reference.

tocharian
tocharian

Highlighting is purely for "dummies" (I do like those black and yellow books though lol)

adnan7631
adnan7631

Ok, what?

highlighting can get in the way of learning; because it draws attention to individual facts

That's the whole point of highlighting. 

The only other problem I have with this piece is that it doesn't actually give a good way to study, it just says how long and how often. 

tabbynormal
tabbynormal

I highlight the few quotes I want to use or paraphrase in a research paper. When there are several sources, even 10-13, to look through and use, it's the easiest way to spot the points I found most important from the journal papers I'm using for research. This isn't studying, though. It's just an example of a good use of highlighting.

p89trd
p89trd

@TonyJack Agreed. Asking why (critical reading) and summarizing texts are incredibly important as learners age.

gmcwhir
gmcwhir

@JeffreyGitomer She isn't wrong, actually. Re-reading and highlighting are forms of passive learning. It is such a HUGE waste of time. It is all about understanding, finding relationships, and applying information to new situations, which highlighting cannot do. By re-reading highlighted material, you become completely dependent on what you highlighted in the past. At that point, what you highlighted could be something you didn't need at all to begin with or something you already know. It could also be something completely wrong. All a waste of time. You scan material looking for highlighted references... waste of time. I understand that everyone has their own methods, but many of those methods are quite inefficient, even though they might work over time. All it is though is bad habit. Highlighting or re-reading should not be anybody's main study technique. -Author of no books, medical student

thelionkrap
thelionkrap

@vergamark Have you ever tried writing the salient points on flash cards instead? And then going over those flashcards every day for 15 to 30 minutes, remember to put in the page number on the cards so you can go back to them. And every sunday, you sit down and write down explanation about each, as if you were trying to teach them to someone else. After you've done so, re-read the jurisprudence itself, see where you were wrong and start the process over again the following week.

Try and cycle through material from the one you least remember and understand, to the one you do most.

Shanendoa
Shanendoa

@gns100sl Read a textbook or skim through a dictionary. Highlight whatever you think is important within 30 pages. After you've done this, walk away. Write down as much as you can possibly remember. Now, wait a few days, return to the book and put those terms all on one side of a note card and their definition on the back  (one term and definition per card). Quiz yourself or have someone quiz you. Put the ones you know in one stack and the ones you don't in another. Do this for the same length of time in which you read; constantly go over the terms you keep missing and then through all of them occasionally. Walk away. Write down as much as you can remember. Then, compare your results. Perhaps you learn through the tip of a highlighter. However, a great deal of students learn faster through repetition. But I'm just a student with very few psych classes under my belt. Try it and see how you do.

bt0558
bt0558

@ijbtheterrible  I agree ij.... i hope you don't mind me calling you ij.....

Highlighting is not an end in itself for most, it is a way of organising, analysing and quickly reviewing information you are trying to learn and hopefully understand.

Shanendoa
Shanendoa

@mdm I don't think the point of the article was to become an expert in everything that you study. I think it was giving students tips that would help them pass their midterms and allow them to spend more time focusing on the classes within their concentration. For example, Judaic studies is an interesting class for me. However, retaining all the information I am force fed within a 75 minute class will do very little for me career wise after graduation. I have no interest in remembering everything and committing any of it to memory. I just need to pass it in order to graduate.

Shanendoa
Shanendoa

@bt0558 This rebuttal to the article was very poorly written. As a simple college student, you lost credibility with me in the first paragraph.

curran.rob
curran.rob

@juangulo731 "Clef" is a proper spelling for the French word for "key." But it's a musical key -- a.k.a. the "key signature" -- not a key that opens a lock (clé). For example, "Play the song again, Sam, but this time in the key of G." In English we use the French word "clef" to talk about musical key signatures. As in, "It's a G clef." Clef in English is pronounced "cleff" whereas in French clef is pronounced "clay." Vous comprenez la différence, mon ami?

cjames13
cjames13

@adnan7631 I understand that you appreciate highlighting, but you did not include ellipses and did not give any context, which insinuates that you didn't read the entire sentence. That's funny, because this is the author's entire point in calling out highlighting: you'll pay more attention to facts and not to deeper connections with the text, which is the entire point of reading.


Here's how you properly quote a portion of a sentence with ellipses, "...highlighting can get in the way of learning; because it draws attention to individual facts..." What you conveniently left out is the continuation of this sentence,"...it may hamper the process of making connections and drawing inferences..." Of course that's the point of highlighting. Again, the author is saying that learning is not just digesting a series of individual facts. 

I understand that you might dislike the author's writing if it only prescribed problems, and not possible solutions. However, under "The Best," she does give solutions: Distributed practice, and practice testing. 

Basically, don't waste your time skimming, highlighting, summarizing a couple days a week (these are all WEEKLY assignments I've been given before, you can see how this rarely got done.)

Instead, read and test yourself on short chunks of reading every day, multiple times a day. In a real class, each time you show up for class you would have a small portion of the reading to do, not just read the whole chapter, or read big chapters or read the entire book all at once. I like the suggestion of Quizlet, other people prefer Anki.

EReadingTeach
EReadingTeach

@gmcwhir @JeffreyGitomer These techniques are not a waste of time IF taught how to do them appropriately and how to use them in a meaningful way. Flashcards, for the most part, are an even WORSE waste of time. Learning how to interact with text in a meaningful fashion such as turning headings or topic sentences into questions and answering them is a good use of time. Creating graphic organizers to synthesize what one has learned is also a good method. Putting major concepts into your own words is a good use of time. Summarizing the text using a formula method is a good memory aid. Never say never, and use anything that works. ---Reading Specialist @ Reading Innovations Center (owner)

bt0558
bt0558

@Shanendoa @gns100sl Shanendoa

It would seem that I have read the same research as you. It would seem that memory of items is indeed improved as a result of repetition.  Elaboration  and organisation are also shown to aid memorisation. 


When it comes to understanding concepts, complex ideas and general understanding at a deeper level repetition and flash cards may have a limited impact I feel. For rote memorisation of lists and/or definitions I have found flash cards to be an excellent tool for autodidaxy. In the UK I have rarely seen "highlighting" used as an isolated strategy, but I have often seen it used as an aid in organisation and analysis. Organisation and analysis are I believe key ingredients for deep learning for many human beings.

So while the evidence I have seen seems to agree with you when it comes to memorising facts and lists, when considering understanding of complex concepts and procedures.

The idea that anyone could learn very much at all by a single occurrence of highlighting parts of a text is I agree a  daft notion and probably doesn't need a great deal of researching to be shown as such.

(I have just gone to click the 'post comment' button and have seen kuljay's comment below which I think says just what I needed to say in a single sentence).


bt0558
bt0558

@Shanendoa @mdm Sorry to come back to you again Shanandoa, but you described with a good deal of precision one of the main problems with the US education system. You are force fed a huge quantity of facts that you have no interest whatsoever in remembering in the long term. You just want to be able to regurgitate facts to pass and highlighting will not help you much.

You will find if you do some research on the subject, that many of the 16 countries above the US in the Pearson global league table do not take this approach, hence the US is not number one and probably never will be again.

Good luck in your exams, I hope you do well. I am sure you will.

bt0558
bt0558

@Shanendoa @bt0558 Shanendoa

Surely even a simple college student would have the courtesy to explain their comment.

juangulo731
juangulo731

@curran.rob @juangulo731 Oui je te comprends et je vous empris parce que vous m'avez dit quelque chose tres interessant, vous etes tres intelligent mais oui

thelionkrap
thelionkrap

@EReadingTeach @gmcwhir @JeffreyGitomer You're talking about learning to read and understanding what you read. In which case, I'd say highlighting, re-reading and summarizing are very useful, but in effect, they are actually applications of interval learning and tests. Re-reading is a way for you to go over the material again at a later time. Apparently, it's better to re-read with a small break in between reads to remember what you are reading. Summarising is a way to test your understanding of the text. I believe the article is right, it just depends what you are learning.

Shanendoa
Shanendoa

@bt0558 @Shanendoa @mdm I agree that having to learn a great deal of different subjects when I only want to major in one thing makes college a bit trivial in certain aspects. However, even though I don't retain all the information each class hopes that I do, I do learn quite a bit and it helps me understand more about different cultures, religions, science, psychology, etc. I would much rather dip into various subjects than get pinned down before I'm old enough to really know what I want.

This was never a discussion about countries and how they operate. Out of respect to you, a stranger, I wouldn't judge your country, beliefs, or the intelligence of the general population. But that's just me and I understand you're just taking on a different perspective. There's a lot about the U.S. that's a mess but I don't think a single country has everything figured out 100%. I'm terrible with politics but I'm sure if a country's leaders figured out a perfect system, others would follow suit.

I hope exams go well, too. Thank you for the well wishes. Senioritis has set in and all I want to do is drive to the beach, dig a hole, and bury myself in it haha. 

P.S. I've really enjoyed this. I don't get to partake in debates very often. And never in "real life" because I'm not that sure of myself haha. So, thanks!

Shanendoa
Shanendoa

@bt0558 @Shanendoa There were quite a few grammatical errors in the first paragraph. Once I read that you were a teacher, I stopped reading. I want to teach one day so I generally hold educators up to a very high standard; not an expectation of perfection because I am far from it myself. I should remember, however, that you could be a math teacher. In that sense, could easily say the same thing to me were we to debate an equation. Math is not my forte. 

I was a bit moody last night after reading comments on several different pages so I apologize for sounding mean. I feel like the world forgets that these articles are written by real people with real feelings. 
I feel like comments on pages outside of my own facebook page are incredibly hostile. I can't read comments on youtube videos or even psych articles because people are such haters. All I want to do is defend the person who wrote it. Even if I don't entirely agree with them. I don't understand why common courtesy doesn't exist in this area of our social lives (not pointing fingers at you, I like these debates we've started). Or, when we are online, are we no longer human and actually taking part in a surreal reality? Baudrillard is on the brain.