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Highlighting: an effective or ineffective study strategy?

Tips for students 18 November 2022

Like most students, you probably highlight your notes with a view to learning them by isolating the important information. But is this technique really effective for memorisation?

Why do we highlight our notes?

Maybe a teacher recommended this method to you, or perhaps you started using it after seeing your classmates highlight their notes.

In general, we highlight the information that seems the most important so that we can focus on the core concepts of the lesson. Highlighting notes with bright colours helps to reduce the amount of information we have to study and prompts us to start memorising the information.

Well, that’s the theory… Because in practice, highlighting can present 3 main problems:

  • It’s difficult to identify which information is important. A date? Highlight it. A definition? Highlight it. A formula? Highlight it.
  • The result is that your page is now almost completely covered in bright colours, and you lose all the benefit of highlighting to identify the important notions.
  • No cognitive effort is required to understand the lesson when you highlight. We’re so busy sorting through the information, deciding which parts to highlight and which ones to leave out, that we don’t try to deepen our understanding of the information. That’s when we miss out on an essential phase of learning.
  • You end up knowing what the highlighted information looks like by heart, but you haven’t learned the information itself. You may feel you’ve learned your lesson when in fact you are only able to recognise it. This can lead to the illusion of learning, which is going to be a problem when you’re looking at your exam paper on the day.
  • You don’t learn when you highlight. Unlike taking notes by hand, which is effective for learning, it’s been proven that when you highlight, no new information is created in the brain and no connections to existing information are made.


As you can see, highlighting is not an effective learning technique when used alone. However, it can be part of a more comprehensive strategy if it’s used well and combined with other active learning methods that allow you to anchor the knowledge in your memory.

Continue reading to find out more 👇

How to effectively incorporate highlighting into your revision?

Highlighting your notes and re-reading them isn’t a productive nor efficient form of studying. You’ll spent a lot of time for a limited result. In fact, this way of learning will not allow you to memorise effectively. We suggest combining highlighting with other techniques to effectively memorise all the concepts you’ll need to pass your exams:

  • Fully read the paragraph or chapter you want to learn before picking up your highlighter. Take time to question yourself about the important points contained in your notes and research them further if necessary. Only after completing this overview will you be able to identify the key concept that need to be highlighted.
  • Highlight the ONE sentence that best describes the core concept to be retained in each paragraph. Try to limit yourself or you will again end up with your entire page highlighted.
  • Use a specific colour code for each type of highlighted information. For example, green for definitions, yellow for examples, etc. This way, when you are looking for a specific piece of information, you can identify it at a glance.
  • After this initial reading, annotate your notes with any additional information you need. Use your own words rather than copying something directly from the internet or a book. Rephrasing requires cognitive effort so therefore it will enhance your memory.
  • At the end of each page or chapter you’ve read and highlighted, take a moment to write everything you can remember down on a blank sheet of paper without looking at your notes. This technique, called the Blurting method, will force you to remember what you’ve just read and to write it down using your own words. Ideal for memorising
  • If you want to go further, turn the key concepts into questions and answers. This is a very effective way of breaking down your notes, as you need to rephrase and understand the concepts in your course. Then you can put your knowledge to the test in the form of a quiz, using flashcards and the SCRIBZEE application.


The secret to using the highlighting technique, which is a passive activity, lies in combining it with active revision methods such as rephrasing, blurting, questions and answers which involve action and effort on your part.

So, are you ready to modify the way you use highlighting for much more efficient results in terms of grades and time spent revising? 😊

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