May 6th, 2015

Lost in a Sea of Yellow: Teaching Students a Better Way to Highlight


yellow highlighted text

A lot of students are in love with their highlighters, especially those bright, fluorescent-colored ones. They use them to highlight course materials, sometimes underlining whole pages of text. When I first saw a text so fluorescent that it all but glowed, I wondered why in the world somebody would spend that much time underlining. Later I understood it was really a cry for help. “I can’t tell what’s important, so I’ll just highlight the entire section so I don’t miss something.” Highlighting can be a useful way of interacting with text, but it needs to be done in a thoughtful way.

 Teaching Professor Blog

A creatively designed study analyzed what faculty, seniors, and first-year students underlined in a piece of primary research in biology. The study contained content familiar to the faculty members. The seniors were biology majors taking a capstone course, and the freshmen were first-year biology students. The questions that motivated the study were pretty straightforward: How do students identify what’s important in an article like this? Assuming they don’t tackle the task the same way experts do, what do they do differently, and how can they be taught to read more like the experts?

The results weren’t all that unexpected. Faculty readers pretty much agreed on what was and wasn’t important in the article. The seniors and the freshmen didn’t agree all that much with each other or with the faculty, although the seniors agreed more closely with the faculty than the freshmen did. The researchers concluded that the seniors had developed some degree of scientific literacy during their undergraduate careers. (If more specific details are of interest, find them in the study.)

It’s the study design that I found most intriguing, and I wondered if it might be a strategy that could help students interact with their assigned readings more effectively. Start by assigning students some course-related material to read and highlight—you can decide if they need a few points to take the task seriously. Then give them a copy of the material with your highlights and encourage discussion on how the two compare and contrast. You could also challenge students to consider how they decide what needs to be underlined. Are there ways to tell when something is important in a text, an essay, or a short story? Is highlighting useful only in identifying what’s important? What about underlining things you don’t understand or passages that relate to content being talked about in class or covered in previous chapters?

The study authors point out that novice science readers usually approach text in a linear fashion. They start at the beginning and read through to the end. I’d say that’s pretty typical of how most students approach all kinds of text. In the case of science studies, the authors note that experienced readers tend to start with the title and the abstract, using those to decide if a paper is of interest. If it is, they often jump to results and consider the findings. Then they might look at the methodology to ascertain if it’s sound, and finally, depending on their level of interest, they consider the review of literature and discussion sessions. I suspect the way experts read content in every field is somewhat unique. The question is when and how are these approaches taught to students?

Some observations get pointed out pretty regularly in this blog—sorry for repeating this one. Most of our students don’t have college-level reading skills. One of the reasons they don’t do their reading is because it’s hard, and just like the rest of us, they find excuses to avoid doing what’s difficult. This is why it is essential that we do what we can to promote the development of skills that make reading college-level materials a less daunting task. A more strategic approach to highlighting is an easy place to help students explore how they know when something’s important and whether that’s the only reason to highlight. From there we might venture into what they can do with what they’ve underlined when they’re studying for an exam.

Gallo, M. and Rinaldo, V., (2012). Towards a mastery understanding of critical reading in biology: The use of highlighting by students to assess their value judgment of the importance of primary literature. Journal of Microbiology & Biology Education, 13 (2), 142-149.

  • Stephanie

    Is that a typo in the title? Should it say "Lost in…" rather than "Lost is…"?

    I appreciate the findings of this study and the point made in this blog. I teach a one-credit reading comprehension class taken largely by first and second year students who aren't very strong readers. For the most part, these students don't utilize strategies that would help them be more efficient and effective readers, so I try to present them with strategies for how to make their reading more manageable and easier to comprehend.

  • Donald…

    Proverbial 'food for thought', based on ten years of 'contemporary' research and assessment:

    "When reading, strive to create an uninterrupted 'stream of unconsciousness'. Therefore, do not hi-lite texts or take notes while reading: hi-liting and note-taking can interrupt and fragment our natural [unconscious] learning and creative processes. With your mind quite literally filled with both unconscious and conscious 'impressions', stop, walk-away and forget about it.



    Think of your 'unconscious' as the Energizer Bunny® of your mind: it works 24/7 and without your conscious awareness, processing mostly unconscious and also conscious 'impressions'. In reality, you are unconsciously collecting, filtering, sorting, storing, organizing and associating the virtually infinite number of 'sensory hits' – impressions – you experience every day and unconsciously process these 'hits' for subsequent retrieval, unconsciously, to spark and fuel your potentially powerful unconscious Natural Intuitive Creative Ideation Potential".

  • Ron Bridges

    This concept could also be used to help students learn to get more out of their textbooks…..Have them read and highlight a section or create an outline of the critical points and then compare that to what you would highlight or outline.

  • Jaff Lawrence

    I am an old maths teacher but I still have difficulties in reading. In most cases I always concentrate on essential points and when these points are not clearly outline, I have difficulties sorting them.