When I give students readings (articles, textbooks, etc), they sometimes literally come to class with entire pages colored yellow with a highlighter. I cannot begin to understand how they discern that everything on a page is of equal value to know.

As such, I would like to know of some suggestions for how to teach my student how to approach highlighting academic texts effectively.

  • What grade are your students? Probably no one ever taught them how to properly annotate a text. I don't know if it's your job (i.e. you teach in high school) or if you inherit a situation from before, but you can organize a class to give tips on annotations, even just by showing how you do it. There is a gazillion of articles and books about the subject, I will write a proper answer when I find some good suggestions.
    – FraEnrico
    May 6, 2016 at 6:51
  • @FraEnrico university May 6, 2016 at 7:18
  • Personally, I never found highlighting text to be useful for me. I read it, synthesized it into something understandable (to me), and made whatever conclusions necessary from it. There are a few occasions where I will highlight, such as when authors put almost all the useful numbers in a table, but have one buried somewhere in the text on a different page - then I will highlight it so I can find it again.
    – Jon Custer
    May 6, 2016 at 15:45

2 Answers 2


Emphasise that there is no right or wrong method

I don't think it is worth giving a prescriptive set of rules on what to do and what to avoid. Learning is a very personal process and what works for one person may be useless to another. I think the most useful thing that a teacher can do is to describe as many different techniques or variations as possible, and let the student decide what works for them. It may be that highlighting the whole text just helps them to read by providing something for the hands to do. I believe some dyslexic students find the bright colours more helpful than a black and white page.

Encourage your students to examine their own learning process.

Encourage them to think about what it is they are trying to achieve via highlighting - help reading in the short term? Long-term memory retention? Make reviewing the article at a later date easier? But hopefully, if the purpose is to pick out key points, then by making them stop and consider this consciously, they will be able to draw their own conclusion that highlighting an entire page is not helpful.



Dunlosky, John, et al. "What works, what doesn't." Scientific American Mind 24.4 (2013): 46-53. -- What Doesn't Work:


Students commonly report underlining, highlighting or otherwise marking material. It is simple and quick — but it does little to improve performance. In controlled studies, highlighting has failed to help U.S. Air Force basic trainees, children and remedial students, as well as typical undergraduates. Underlining was ineffective regardless of text length and topic, whether it was aerodynamics, ancient Greek schools or Tanzania.

In fact, it may actually hurt performance on some higher-level tasks. One study of education majors found that underlining reduced their ability to draw inferences from a history textbook. It may be that underlining draws attention to individual items rather than to connections across items.

WHAT YOU SHOULD DO INSTEAD: Highlighting or underlining can be useful if it is the beginning of a journey — if the marked information is then turned into flash cards or self-tests. Given that students are very likely to continue to use this popular technique, future research should be aimed at teaching students how to highlight more effectively—which likely means doing it more judiciously (most undergraduates overmark texts) and putting that information to work with a more useful learning technique.

  • 6
    Well, this quote is useful but it doesn't say stop highlighting. Rather it says to teach "students to highlight more effectively". I want to know how to get students to highlight more effectively. May 6, 2016 at 3:06
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    To be clear, there is no evidence that highlighting is ever anything but a waste of time. As it says, to be optimistic, "future research" might turn up something positive... but at the moment one would just be taking shots in in the dark. May 6, 2016 at 7:36
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    @DarrinThomas Maybe I read the quoted text wrong, but what I got from it was "highlighting on its own is useless or even detrimental, using other techniques in addition to highlighting can be good" -- and it's not even clear whether these other techniques wouldn't work just as well without highlighting.
    – user9646
    May 6, 2016 at 7:45
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    I don't think you can conclude that highlighting doesn't work from that study. An alternative interpretation is that people don't know how to do it.
    – Davidmh
    May 6, 2016 at 9:20
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    @Davidmh: It's not one study, it's a literature review: "... we reviewed more than 700 scientific articles on 10 commonly used learning techniques...." (p. 48). May 6, 2016 at 16:20

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