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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.

113 comments
sahananitesh
sahananitesh

Improving educational outcomes will require efforts on many fronts, but a central premise of this monograph is that one part of a solution involves helping students to better regulate their learning through the use of effective learning techniques.http://www.eduvercity.com/

JN27
JN27

We've known this for a very long time. I read about these things in a book titled "What Smart Students Know" when I was in high school 11 years ago.

RobinNixon
RobinNixon

Highlighting is great for making the most important information stand out, as long as there's no more than one highlight per page. It makes a book easy to browse through and pick up what was important to you. But if you highlight all the facts, its the same as if you highlighted none of them.

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.

p89trd
p89trd

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

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.

AnaVillanueva
AnaVillanueva

Was this secretly written by the Bush brothers?

labellaflora
labellaflora

Revisiting material over time is obviously necessary to recall the information at later times. It solidifies memory paths in the brain. But you are not getting the point of the material if you cannot define what is the important information. This is a problem for students. There is so much filler in textbooks that it can be confusing to them. And you cannot make flash cards without knowing what is the important information.

Learning to pick out (summarize, outline, highlight) important concepts and information was a skill a high school English teacher taught me and it has carried me through all my years as a student and a teacher.

I am also a visual learner and mental pictures have been very useful to me in triggering the recall of information. So, maybe it's not for everyone, but it is important tool some of us.

Rick
Rick

I'm calling troll bait....more specifically (and I recommend highlighting this!) book bait

ThömFrost
ThömFrost

i highlight the stuff the my teacher or professor would point out. most of mine would say this will be on the test and then i would make sure i highlighted that part.

argayah
argayah

I wish to disagree with the title: "Highlighting Is a Waste of Time". My response is that it all depends on how highlighting is used. 


Flash cards simply allows a person to place key points onto individual screens/cards/slides. This technique works by removing distracting material from around the idea or concept the student is trying to grasp. They are also popular because supporting text/diagrams/data can be added to clarify further; and this is the reason why tools such as PowerPoint, Keynote, and Prezi are so popular.


One should consider that there are different ways in which to highlight text. If two colours are used instead of one, then perhaps green can be used to highlight the main points, and yellow, the supporting points. Some text books even have space at the edge of the body to facilitate personal note taking. Adobe Reader also has highlighting and commenting tools for pdf files. Is this not similar to the flash card concept? 


Although one may argue that highlighting can be considered less effective, this in itself is insufficient to render it as a "waste of time". The effective use of any tool or technique depends on what the user is trying to achieve, and for some persons, highlighting is indeed sufficient to that end.


Different persons learn differently. I would suggest that the author abstain from article titles that may alienate any of its readers; regardless of how statistically insignificant any studies may consider them to be.

Thepreachteach
Thepreachteach

Are these 'Learning Techniques,' or 'Studying for test' techniques?

AndrewWeiler
AndrewWeiler

The idea of using a key word mnemonic has been around for a while but really it is a poor strategy as it does not locate the word within a usable structure in the foreign language, relying upon translation and a trick, as it were, to remember it. Translation of course has a place but far better to stay in the language you are learning as much as possible.  No wonder so many language learners complain about not being able to use the words they learn.

A far better strategy is to locate a new word within a sentence in the target language. And make the sentence as personable, as interesting and as evocative as you can. e.g. "I was given a pendant as a MEMENTO by my best friend to help me remember him when I went to work overseas". Should you do another sentence, there is little likelihood that you would ever forget this word....AND how to use it!

alittlenegative
alittlenegative

Agreed that I'm not a big fan of highlighting to help me remember things. It is a useful way to flag things to bring up in class/discussion sections though.

kdwcal
kdwcal

Wow....I couldn't disagree more about highlighting not being effective:  I find that it helps me focus on core points, or points of particular interest.  Highlighting also gives me future reassurance that I've been on that page, and that I know the material from the page.

But I do agree about practice testing.  I probably should have done more of that way back when....

LadyoftheLib
LadyoftheLib

When I teach skimming and scanning for information, highlighting helps students focus on exactly what it is they are searching for, whether it is in print or electronic format. They search for content clues, such as the phrase "reasons for" to support their topic.Then they can locate it easily when starting the note-taking process. Do some people over-highlight - yes, yes. But it has a place in the research process for many people.