To excel academically, you need to master your study skills. Highlighting your notes can be a helpful way to document the most critical components of your study guide for quick reference during test prep and review—but only if you follow proper highlighting techniques. It can be easy to start highlighting as you read along, and then realize after a short period of time that you’ve highlighted everything other than the prepositions and the page numbers and don’t remember any of it. Don’t make the mistake of highlighting so much, that nothing stands out. Your aim should be to only highlight 20 to 30 percent of the text you’re studying. Follow our best practices below for proper highlighting techniques.
Consider the Subject Matter
The subject matter that you’re studying will be the first factor that dictates your technique. Studying history, a subject that requires fact memorization, requires a different technique from studying a novel with a flowing plot and overarching concepts.
Consider Your Goal
Identify your specific study goal. Your real goal is not to memorize an entire textbook, or simply “know everything.” There are going to be concepts, themes, processes, facts, or timelines that you’ll be expected to know. Focus on what you ultimately need to understand and keep that in mind as you attempt to pick out the words, phrases, and sentences that do the best job of synthesizing the concepts and content that really matter.
Color Code with Different Color Highlighters
When reviewing your notes to prepare for an exam, you’ll benefit from triggers, such as colors, that remind you how certain types of content is related or grouped, or what is of primary versus secondary importance. Using multiple highlighters of different colors can help you to organize your thought processes as you work to retain and recall content.
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Highlight complete words and phrases
Depending on the textbook author’s style, sentences could be lengthy and may combine critical information with details and other “fluffy” content. It can be tempting to just highlight words and phrases, but remember that when you go back to the book later for studying, you need that content to make sense. Be sure to highlight phrases and words in a way that will allow them to be read as full sentences. For example, you can skip highlighting a detail or an example in a parenthetical citation, but highlight what comes before and after so you are documenting the entire concept.
Highlight Key Terms and Definitions
No matter the subject matter, there will be terms and concepts you’ll need to understand. Highlight important words and the crux of their definition, but not the definition, the clarification, and the three examples that follow.
Summarize What Cannot be Highlighted
If you come across several long sentences, or even a paragraph, that you truly feel is important end-to-end, don’t highlight it. Instead, summarize it separately in your notes. Perhaps it’s a paragraph that explains a scientific process, or summarizes legislation. Make a note in the margin to refer to your notes. If you highlight an entire block of text, your mind won’t have a way to remember it succinctly. Summarizing it in your own words will do more for your recall than highlighting and re-reading a large piece of text.