Exams Learning Student-made

Highlighting doesn’t work – here’s what does

Reading Time: 4 minutes

Our student writer, Malaika, wrote this piece a few exam season’s ago. However with the shift to online assessments this year, it’s a great reminder of ways to rethink your revision methods. Take inspiration from her tips, as you might find that your usual study style might benefit from a shake up as you prepare for open book assessments. Switching up your techniques might just be what your revision routine needs, and could help you transition from simply memorising content to properly absorbing it.

Any university student reading the title of this piece may gasp in disbelief, horror, or sadness. Given that exam time is almost upon us once again, you will inevitably restart the cycle of buying new revision supplies – but hopefully after reading this, highlighters won’t be included. Scientifically some methods of revision produce more substantial results than others.

Method 1: Highlighting

Highlighting is a popular method of studying. Unfortunately, studies show that highlighting isn’t useful at all. In fact, the overall utility is really low and there is actually no benefit of highlighting compared to just reading the text.

This is because highlighting actually decreases our ability to make inferences and actually hurts our performance. It encourages you to memorise facts rather than concepts, and doesn’t allow you to make connections between different ideas. You won’t be able to apply knowledge to exam questions that are broad or require extending your knowledge. The same research can be extended to underlining.

While students are overly familiar with highlighting, the technique isn’t the most effective and does little to boost our exam performance.

Method 2: Summarising

Another popular technique that many students use is summarising and condensing notes. The difficulty with summarising is that the quality varies between students. You might summarise in bullet points, mind maps or in paragraphs. An ideal summary should eliminate irrelevant information leaving only the key points to help understand a topic. Studies provide mixed feedback to the efficacy of summarising.

The general conclusion is that summaries can actually be an effective learning strategy for students who are already skilled at it, however the majority of learners would need training – making summarising a hit or miss strategy. It is more effective than re-reading and highlighting but still isn’t a top tier study technique.

Method 3: Rereading

Rereading continues to be the most popular technique amongst college students. Many studies have been done on rereading that have produced mixed results. Students tend to recall the main ideas rather than details.

There is some evidence to suggest that leaving gaps between your reading rather than rereading over and over again is linked to higher retention of that knowledge. However these studies don’t take into account other confounding variables such as prior knowledge of the topic, reading speed or ability. While it’s by no means the least effective technique, it isn’t the most effective either.

So…what works?

Active recall!

Active recall is the process of actively searching your brain for information rather than passively absorbing it. In terms of practise testing, it was rated by several studies as having high overall utility because it works for all ages, abilities and even over long time lags between revision.

During active recall, you use specific clues to reconstruct something at a particular time and place and this involves searching through long-term memory and you can form multiple mental pathways of encoded information that lead to the same solution. You’ll find your answer much quicker!

How can I study using active recall?

You don’t need to abandon your previous study methods – integrating them with active recall is a good way to make use of previous revision.

1. Flashcards! Easy and portable, you can either make physical cards or use online services such as Quizlet. Try generating questions from a summary or from rereading a passage and testing yourself.

2. Practice tests! They are a good way to test a wide range of information. Mimicking exam conditions may give you some familiarity and reduce exam anxiety. If your course doesn’t provide past papers try making some with friends.

3. Closed book mind maps! The main benefit of active recall is generating multiple pathways to the same result. Putting them on paper (without looking at your notes) is the exact same process.

There are even more revision techniques out there that I haven’t mentioned. Research is by no means conclusive or complete so the ‘correct’ method of studying will always be evolving. You can look at my last article for other tips on post-exam revision and hopefully you’ve gotten some ideas for revision that are more efficient than traditional methods.

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