I’ve Been Studying All Wrong: Highlighting and Rereading

As an undergraduate, my study regimen mostly consisted of:

  • Reading and highlighting assigned material (usually)
  • Doing assigned homework / problem sets
  • Taking notes during class
  • A week or so prior to exam…
    • Rereading the portions of the text that I highlighted
    • Reading chapter summaries
    • Rereading my notes

These are typical learning strategies, and they seemed adequate at the time. (However, grad student Patrick really wished undergrad Patrick had retained some more calculus and linear algebra.) Now, in my perpetual quest to become a better teacher, I’ve been dabbling in the cognitive sciences literature. The research around effective learning strategies (AKA studying techniques) has been especially interesting. I now realize I could have been studying much more effectively and efficiently. This literature has been wonderfully summarized by Dunlosky et al. (2013) in a comprehensive review of 10 common learning techniques used by students. Here is a small part of what they found:

Highlighting / Underlining

Highlighting and underlining are frequently used by students. This study technique requires relatively little time or preparation beyond what is required to read the text. The common rationale for the approach is that students better retain material if they are making decisions about which material is most important (and worthy of highlighting). In practice, students are better able to remember information that they have highlighted or underlined, but this effect is negated because students are often unable to correctly identify the most important parts of a text when deciding what to highlight.  Dunlosky and colleagues conclude that…

“…most studies have shown no benefit of highlighting (as it is typically used) over and above the benefit of simply reading…” 

Rereading Notes and Text

Rereading course material is also among the most common study strategies used by students (Karpicke et al. 2009). There is some evidence that students retain more information after rereading, especially if there is a gap in time between initial reading and rereading (see Part 3 of this entry). However, the benefit is generally negligible to small (Callendar et al. 2009). Given the small gains in retention that result from rereading, Dunlosky et al. conclude…

“…although rereading is relatively economical with respect to time demands and training requirements…, rereading is also typically much less effective. The relative disadvantage of rereading to other techniques is the largest strike against rereading and is the factor that weighed most heavily in our decision to assign it a rating of low utility.”

So, if the utility of rereading is so low, why do students do it? First, it’s easy. Re-reading takes time but requires little planning or strenuous cognitive effort. The more insidious reason is that rereading leads to the illusion of mastery (AKA illusion of competence). As a student reads a text multiple times, the words become more familiar, and the student become more fluent in them. This leads students to falsely believe that they are gaining a deeper understanding of the material when they aren’t (Brown et al. 2014, Karpicke et al. 2009).

So, if highlighting the text has negligible benefits, and rereading has low utility, what learning strategies should I have been using when I was a student?

Next: How I Should Have Studied. Part 1: Retrieval Practice


Brown, P. C., H. L. R. III, and M. A. McDaniel. 2014. Make It Stick: The Science of Successful Learning. Belknap Press: An Imprint of Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Dunlosky, J., K. A. Rawson, E. J. Marsh, M. J. Nathan, and D. T. Willingham. 2013. Improving Students’ Learning With Effective Learning Techniques Promising Directions From Cognitive and Educational Psychology. Psychological Science in the Public Interest 14:4–58.

Karpicke, J. D., A. C. Butler, and H. L. Roediger III. 2009. Metacognitive strategies in student learning: Do students practise retrieval when they study on their own? Memory 17:471–479.

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