Lose that yellow highlighter

The most common study techniques — marking up the textbook with yellow highlighter, rereading and cramming at the last minute — are the least effective, writes John Dunlosky,  Kent State psychology professor, on the AFT blog. Taking practice tests and spreading out studying over time is much more likely to help students learn and remember, researchers have found.

Table 1: Effectiveness of Techniques Reviewed

 Other study techniques are “promising” but unproven:

Interleaved practice: implementing a schedule of practice that mixes different kinds of problems, or a schedule of study that mixes different kinds of material, within a single study session.

Elaborative interrogation: generating an explanation for why an explicitly stated fact or concept is true.

Self-explanation: explaining how new information is related to known information, or explaining steps taken during problem solving.

Among the less-useful strategies are: rereading the text, highlighting and underlining, summarizing, using mnemonics and “attempting to form mental images of text materials while reading or listening.”

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  1. I’ve seen more than a few students who seem to believe that merely highlighting a passage magically made them learn it. I’ve also seen people who highlighted nearly all of their book (?).

    I was taught, don’t underline more than 10% of a page, any more than that defeats the purpose.

    Personally, for really tough classes, I found sitting down and re-writing my notes within a few hours of class helped a lot. As did trying to figure out what types of questions the prof would ask on the test and how I would answer them.

  2. Mark Roulo says:

    “Among the less-useful strategies are: rereading the text…”


    This one puzzles me. You should only read the material you are trying to learn once?

    • Mark – yeah; that’s how the article reads. Maybe they’re thinking about a straight rereading rather than constructing flash cards or study guides or diagramming stuff out; you know; actively trying to get it in the brain. Still, I’d say most things of any rigor likely benefit from a second read; and there are diminishing returns beyond that.

    • Reading the article — “Despite its popularity, rereading has inconsistent effects on student learning: whereas students typically benefit from rereading when they must later recall texts from memory, rereading does not always enhance students’ understanding of what they read, and any benefits of rereading (over just a single reading) may not be long-lasting. So, rereading may be relatively easy for students to do, but they should be encouraged to use other strategies (such as practice testing, distributed practice, or self-explanation) when they revisit their text and notes.”

      IOW, rereading alone is really what he’s referring to here.

  3. In the hard sciences, mnemonics and other memory aids are essential for subjects such as anatomy (On Olympus’ Towering Top…) and organic chemistry (mostly for named reactions). Flash cards too. Loved those flash cards.

    I would reread in the evening then write additionally in my notes of the day, then write questions for the prof for the next session (they started with “any questions about the last lecture?”).

  4. I used highlighting and re-reading regularly, but both followed by taking notes and serial condensing of the material. I also reviewed and amended my class notes that day, and I took extensive notes; it was not uncommon for me to have 15 pages (avg size writing) of outlined notes for one 3-hr history or science class. I also identified likely exam questions and prepared for them, which really paid off in English classes where lots of quotes were used (author, title and significance). I always did the appropriate/assigned class prep, never cut class and never allowed myself to get behind on readings, homework and studying (re-reading, highlighting and amending notes were big parts). By the time tests came, I usually had half/all of the semester’s work – college – condensed to a few note cards. It worked for me.