Getting the Details Just Right: Highlighting

Because the school year starts right now, I’m using this month’s blog posts to give direct classroom guidance.

Female student using pale blue highlighter in a book

Last week, I wrote about a meta-analysis showing that — yup — retrieval practice is awesome.

Teachers should be aware of a few detail (e.g.: “brain dumps” are among the least effective kinds of retrieval practice).

But for the most part, asking students to retrieve stuff (facts, processes, etc.) helps them remember that stuff better — and to transfer their understanding to new situations.

This week, let’s talk about another strategy that teachers and students might use: highlighting.

We know that retrieval practice is awesome. Is highlighting equally awesome? More or less so? When and how should students highlight?

Start Here

For several years, the go-to answer to this question has come from this research summary, by John Dunlosky, Dan Willingham, and others.

Their rather bleak conclusion:

we rate highlighting and underlining as having low utility. In most situations that have been examined and with most participants, highlighting does little to boost performance.

It may help when students have the knowledge needed to highlight more effectively, or when texts are difficult, but it may actually hurt performance on higher level tasks that require inference making. (emphasis added)

They reached this conclusion 10 years ago. Do we know anything more today?

Who Times Two

Last year, Ponce, Mayer & Méndez published a meta-analysis looking at the potential benefits of highlighting.

They found two key variables not included in the earlier research summary.

First: the students’ age/grade.

Second: the person doing the highlighting.

That is: they found that …

If the INSTRUCTOR does the highlighting, doing so benefits college students AND K-12 students, but

If the STUDENT does the highlighting, doing so benefits college studets but NOT K-12 students.

These findings make rough-n-ready sense.

We teachers know what the important ideas are. For that reason, our highlighting help students (on average) focus on those important ideas — so they learn and understand more.

Students — especially younger students — probably don’t know what the important ideas are. For that reason, their own highlighting might not accentuate important ideas (on average), and so they don’t benefit from highlighting.

When I ask a student why he highlighted a passage, I sometimes get a version this answer: “Honestly, I realized I hadn’t highlighted anything in a few pages, so I thought I really needed to find something that sounded important.”

Little wonder, then, that my 10th graders don’t benefit from highlighting.

Classroom Specifics

Of course, this meta-analysis also arrived at other useful conclusions.

This first one came to me as something of a shock: although highlighting does benefit some students, reviewing the highlights doesn’t.

The researchers write:

“on average, reviewing highlighted text previously highlighted by learners did not improve learning significantly more than students who only read or studied the text.”

I infer from this finding that highlighting helps (if at all) because it prompts students to FOCUS ON and THINK ABOUT information the first time they read it.

It does not, however, help students when they return to the highlighted passage later.

That’s useful to know!

Another conclusion is less of a surprise: training helps.

That is: we can help students (yes, even K-12 students) highlight more effectively.

According to the meta-analysis, we can…

… show students examples of good and bad highlighting,

… help them distinguish between main ideas and secondary ones, and

… emphasize that too much highlighting reduces the benefit.

For example:

I myself don’t ask my English students to highlight much. But, I do ask them to note very specific parts of the text.

When we read Macbeth, I ask them to circle/highlight every time they see the words “do,” “done,” or “deed.” (Believe it or not, those words show an important pattern in the play.)

When we read Their Eyes Were Watching God, they highlight various symbols: hair, gates/fences, mules, trees.

I hope that these very modest highlights help students spot patterns they otherwise would have missed — without distracting them too much from other important parts of the story.

In other words: used judiciously and narrowly, highlighting can provide some benefit.


This recent meta-analysis gives us helpful specifics on how best to use highlighting.

Ideally, we teachers do the highlighting ourselves, especially in K-12 classrooms ; we teach students how to highlight (not too much!); we don’t encourage them to review their highlights.

In fact, as we saw in last week’s post, retrieval practice should replace “review the highlights” as a way to review and study.

Dunlosky, J., Rawson, K. A., Marsh, E. J., Nathan, M. J., & Willingham, D. T. (2013). Improving students’ learning with effective learning techniques: Promising directions from cognitive and educational psychology. Psychological Science in the Public interest14(1), 4-58.

Ponce, H. R., Mayer, R. E., & Méndez, E. E. (2022). Effects of learner-generated highlighting and instructor-provided highlighting on learning from text: a meta-analysis. Educational Psychology Review34(2), 989-1024.




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