Many college students use highlighting as a reading tool. However, despite its popularity, highlighting tends not to be a very effective reading strategy. This guide shares effective reading strategies that you can use instead of or in addition to highlighting and shares tips for highlighting well.
Why do students highlight? Usually students highlight because they want to focus on the important parts of the text and highlight—literally and figuratively—those parts for later study. The problem is that instead of thinking critically about the content, they primarily spend their mental energy sorting the content into what’s important and what’s not. Focusing on which details to highlight can get in the way of a deeper understanding of the big picture.
In addition, many students who highlight while reading then use these highlighted sections of the text as the main substance of their studying, rereading this content as their primary study strategy. Rereading in this way can contribute to illusions of competence—the feeling that we know more than we actually know. Why? After looking at content that’s phrased a particular way and presented on the same part of a page a couple of times, that content can pretty quickly become familiar to a reader. Many of us confuse this familiarity with a good understanding of the material. And even if we remember or even understand these highlighted nuggets, there’s no indication that we’re seeing the bigger picture and are able to apply, analyze, or evaluate the material—the types of higher order thinking that professors usually invoke in their exam questions.
As the paragraph above explains, highlighting isn’t 100% bad in and of itself, depending on what students highlight and how they use that content later. Some students like highlighting or underlining because it helps them do something with their hands and become more engaged with the text. If that’s you, great—don’t stop if it works for you. But read ahead to find out how you can do more to engage while reading and studying.
Effective strategies to use when reading are ones that engage your brain in deep thinking about the text. Here are just a few ideas:
Preview the text. Before starting to read, look through the chapter and note text features like headings, bold words, charts, graphs, images, and end of chapter questions. Use this information to form an idea of what the chapter is going to focus on.
Know your purpose. Set a purpose for reading before you start. (Think about what you need to be able to know or do after reading). Keep that purpose in mind while you read, and check to see if you have reached it by the end.
Annotate. Take brief notes in your own words about the main concepts and key words in the margins of your text. This is a quick and engaging way to take notes.
Ask and answer questions. Turn headings into questions and then answer them as you read. Form questions while you read and try to answer them later. Answer questions provided by the book.
Summarize. Stop after every paragraph or page and write a brief summary of the main concepts in your own words. Summarizing can be more effective than highlighting or annotating because it helps you better gauge what you do and don’t understand about a reading.
Fore more reading strategies, check out these handouts from the Learning Center:
Dembo, M. and Seli, H. (2013). Motivation and learning strategies for college success: A focus on self-regulated learning. (4th ed.). (2013). New York: Taylor & Francis.
Holschuh, J. and Nist, S. (2000). Active learning: Strategies for college success. Massachusetts: Allyn & Bacon.
Developed and shared by The Learning Center, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.