MythBusters: Highlighting helps me study

Myth: Highlighting* the textbook will help me study for the test.

As seen in: Used textbooks (paper or digital), Youtube videos and blog posts on how to be a straight A student or how to study better, students exchanging studying tips.

Evidence for this: While there is little to no evidence that highlighting text while reading is significantly better than just reading for test performance, some studies have found cases where highlighting may have a slight advantage. For example, Blanchard and Mikkelson (1987) and L. L. Johnson (1988) found that subjects who highlighted text while reading performed better on questions related to the information they highlighted but at a cost of performing worse on questions related to information they did not highlight. ‘Great! Highlight more!’ you may say BUT we can’t highlight everything, or else is anything really highlighted (as important)? It turns out that any advantage depends on the effectiveness of one’s highlighting. Unfortunately, students don’t always know which details are important to highlight effectively. Subjects could perform better when reading pre-highlighted text than when highlighting the text themselves because researchers are often better at identifying the most important details of the text (Nist & Hogrebe, 1987). On the bright side, researchers have found some success in improving student’s ability to highlight effectively and in turn, improving their performance on tests. Rickards and August (1975) asked students to only highlight one sentence per paragraph. These students recalled more from the text than students who just read the text. This restriction forced students to only highlight what was most important and focus on main ideas. Hayati and Shariatifar (2009) had students read the text and identify main ideas, and then, gave them feedback before allowing them to highlight the text. Students who received this training performed better on reading comprehension tests than students who did not receive this training.

Evidence against this: While highlighting may help if done well, most studies found no benefit of highlighting (as typically used) over just reading (Fowler & Barker, 1974; Rickards & Denner, 1979; Stordahl & Christensen, 1956; Todd & Kessler, 1971). There are cases where highlighting may be disadvantageous. Fowler and Barker (1974) found that the more text subjects highlighted the worse their test performance. Highlighting may even hurt students’ ability to make inferences about the text. Peterson (1992) had students read a 10,000-word chapter in a history textbook. Students went through one of the three sequences: 1) read and highlighted during first session, reviewed a clean copy one week later, and then took a test 2 months later, 2) read and highlighted during first session, reviewed their highlighted version one week later, and then took a test 2 months later, or 3) read during first session, reviewed a clean copy one week later, and then took a test 2 months later. The multiple choice test had questions about facts from the text and questions that required inferences. All three groups performed similarly on the fact-based questions but the students who highlighted first and then reviewed their highlighted text one week after performed worse on the inference questions.

Final verdict: Highlighting text is not an effective or reliable way to study for a test. It may help if it’s done effectively, which is often difficult for students, but not by much. It could even hurt your ability to make inferences about the text.

*For the purposes of this mythbusters article, literature on both highlighting and underlining was used as evidence for and against the myth about highlighting, but was referred to exclusively as highlighting in order to increase readability and reduce confusion. Researchers often consider these techniques equivalent as they should conceptually work the same. In fact, Fowler and Barker (1974) found no differences between them.


Blanchard, J., & Mikkelson, V. (1987). Underlining performance outcomes in expository text. Journal of Educational Research, 80, 197–201.

Fowler, R. L., & Barker, A. S. (1974). Effectiveness of highlighting for retention of text material. Journal of Applied Psychology, 59, 358–364.

Hayati, A. M., & Shariatifar, S. (2009). Mapping Strategies. Journal of College Reading and Learning, 39, 53–67.

Johnson, L. L. (1988). Effects of underlining textbook sentences on passage and sentence retention. Reading Research and Instruction, 28, 18–32.

Nist, S. L., & Hogrebe, M. C. (1987). The role of underlining and annotating in remembering textual information. Reading Research and Instruction, 27, 12–25.

Peterson, S. E. (1992). The cognitive functions of underlining as a study technique. Reading Research and Instruction, 31, 49–56.

Rickards, J. P., & August G. J. (1975). Generative underlining strategies in prose recall. Journal of Educational Psychology, 67, 860–865.

Rickards, J. P., & Denner, P. R. (1979). Depressive effects of underlining and adjunct questions on children’s recall of text. Instructional Science, 8, 81–90.

Stordahl, K. E., & Christensen, C. M. (1956). The effect of study techniques on comprehension and retention. Journal of Educational Research, 49, 561–570.

Todd, W. B., & Kessler, C. C., III. (1971). Influence of response mode, sex, reading ability, and level of difficulty on four measures of recall of meaningful written material. Journal of Educational Psychology, 62, 229–234.