How a low-utility strategy can support a high-utility study strategy

By Kate Jones

Highlighters have long been the go to revision resource and a staple part of a study toolkit for a lot of students. Despite the popularity of highlighter pens; teachers often advise against their use or at least try to warn students how multi-coloured highlighted notes are a poor proxy for learning. Just because content has been highlighted and underlined, it does not mean the content has been learned. 

The purpose of highlighters is to highlight information to be learned. A problem with this (and a significant problem at that) tends to be that students can’t always successfully identify and recognise what information is essential and what isn’t; therefore all notes become brightly coloured and underlined, with the highlighting task itself losing its purpose – when everything is highlighted, nothing is highlighted. 

Parents often view highlighted notes as a visible indicator that their child is studying and learning material successfully but highlighted notes can be deceptive. Highlighting doesn’t always pay off, much to the frustration and confusion of students and their parents. 

There are many reasons why students enjoy highlighting and become over reliant on this study strategy. Highlighting can make class notes appear bright, colourful and visually very appealing. Highlighting doesn’t require much mental effort or challenge, it’s easy to do. Highlighted notes don’t tell

students what they can and can’t recall, instead it provides a false sense of confidence and the ‘illusion of knowing.’ 

A classic example is an actor that will use a highlighter to show the lines on a script they must learn. Once their lines have been highlighted this does not mean the actor has automatically learned their lines; it simply shows the actor what lines they need to learn. The actor will need to read their lines and then eventually test themselves until they can recall lines fluently and confidently without the prompt of their script. 

The work of John Dunlosky, Professor of Psychology at Kent State University in Ohio, explained how not all study strategies are equal; with research suggesting some are simply more effective than others. Any revision is better than no revision but the amount of time and energy invested into revision should be invested into effective and efficient study strategies. Unfortunately, for fans of the highlighter pen the review carried out by Dunlosky and colleagues showed that this strategy was rated as low utility in terms of its effectiveness. 

In contrast to highlighting are effective study strategies, although not always as popular or as widely used, retrieval practice and spaced practice. Retrieval practice involves the act of recalling information from long term memory; this can and should be carried out in lessons but it is also very straightforward for students to do outside of the classroom independently. 

Retrieval practice focuses on how to study whereas spaced practice focuses on when to study. Spaced practice involves exactly that, spacing out study

 Strengthening the Student Toolbox. Study Strategies to boost Learning. Professor John Dunlosky. American Educator 2013.

sessions. Study should be carried out little and often over a period of time as opposed to massed or last minute practice known as cramming. 

Dunlosky does suggest that students can still use their highlighters but this must not be their sole or main method of study. Firstly, students need to be shown how to use highlighters effectively; how to identify key and relevant information that they need to learn. Secondly, and more importantly, students need to understand that highlighting should only be done at the beginning of the study process. The secret to successful study is what happens next; how the highlighted information is used to support spaced retrieval practice. 

A good idea is to colour code highlighting. Whilst studying history, for example, the following information can be categorised and colour coded using highlighters;

  • Key historical dates
  • Key events
  • Key individuals
  • Key terms
  • Causes
  • Effects

Once that information has been highlighted it can be used to create flashcards; with a key term on one side and correct definition on the flip side. Another idea would be to create a quiz based on the highlighted content for students to self test at a later date.

Unlike highlighting, retrieval practice will explicitly show students what they can and cannot recall from long term memory. This identifies gaps in knowledge, therefore students know where to focus their next stage of revision. 

Professor Robert Bjork states, ‘Using your memory, shapes your memory. Using your memory, changes your memory’. Regular retrieval practice can result in students being able to recall content with greater ease and confidence in the future. 

Highlighters don’t deserve to be ditched but they do need to be understood and used in a way to support effective study strategies, ensuring learners are revision-ready and become successful students.


Kate Jones is Head of History at The British School Al Khubairat, Abu Dhabi. Kate is also the author of Love To Teach: Research and Resources for Every Classroom and the Retrieval Practice collection. Kate can be found on Twitter and Instagram @KateJones_teach

Write A Comment