Does underlining help to study better?
Is underlining texts an effective study technique? Let's see what the science shows.
If we were to take the notes of a university student we would most likely find books, articles and other documents underlined with all kinds of fluorescent colors: yellow, green, orange, pink, blue... There is a Wide range of colors that we can find in stores, colors that are in great demand in the educational world.
Underlining is one of the most popular techniques among the student population, especially in high school, high school and university. The premise behind this is that underlining highlights key ideas and, therefore, facilitates both review and memorization of those ideas.
But really, does underlining help you study better? Below we will see whether or not this study strategy really helps to get a better grasp of the syllabus.
Is underlining an effective measure to study better?
It doesn't fail. If we go to the nearest library and we take a walk through it we will see all kinds of students with their notes on the table, books and other documents that in addition to having some other annotation will also have a wide range of colors. There are flirty students who do it in pastel colors, others prefer the more garish fluorescent classics and some prefer to go simple and underline with pencil or pen. Whatever the case, students, almost by instinct, need to underline their notes.
Underlining is one of the most popular techniques among students at all levels of education, especially in secondary school (ESO).especially in secondary school (ESO), pre-university (baccalaureate) and university. They don't do it for the sake of it, of course: the aim is to facilitate learning and memorization of content, highlighting key ideas and making it easier to refer to them during review without having to read the whole page from top to bottom.
Due to its popularity, there is no shortage of research in educational sciences that have tried to find out if underlining really helps to study better. This strategy has been studied both in a laboratory context, controlling all possible variables, and in real classroom situations, i.e., field work. Both types of research have coincided in comparing underlining with other strategies also used by the student population and reading without underlining.
Of the many investigations that have focused on studying the efficacy of underlining as a study technique, we have a classic one, carried out in 1974 by Robert L. Fowler and Anne S. Barker. Barker. In brief, their study involved giving a 10-page text to their students, who were divided into three groups, each with one of the following 3 conditions:
- Read without underlining
- Reading with underlining
- Reading the text already underlined
The students read the text to themselves and did what the researchers told them to do. Those in condition 1 simply read, without underlining. Those in condition 2 had to read the text underlining it on their own and as expected each one underlined what they considered relevant, which could vary from person to person. Those in 3 received a text that already had the key ideas underlined.
The next session of the experiment was carried out after one week and consisted of a test in which the students were asked about the contents explained in the 10-page document. the contents that were explained in the 10-page document were asked.. Before the exam, the students had the opportunity to review for about 10 minutes using the same document they had used the previous time, i.e., those in 1 received the same document without underlining, those in 2 received the one they had colored themselves, and those in 3 received the document with the ideas underlined.
When comparing the results of the test answered by the students in the three conditions, the researchers found no statistically significant differences between these conditions. Surprising as it may seem, other studies along the same lines as this one or inspired by it had similar results, suggesting at first glance that underlining does not work.
Is it really of no use?
However, to assume right off the bat that underlining has no benefit whatsoever for study is a hasty and shallow interpretation. Albeit somewhat subtly, having actively underlined or having received an already underlined document was associated with better performance compared to just reading the text, suggesting that there really is something to be gained from underlining..
When we see a word underlined in a different color on a black-and-white page, we inevitably notice it. That word stands out above the others because it does not have the same visual, i.e. perceptual, characteristics as the rest of the text that is not colored. This word will have caught our attention and even if we have not made the effort we will remember it more easily than the rest of the text.
This is the Von Restorff or Isolation Effectand it occurs when a piece of information stands out semantically or sensorially. By standing out it is more likely to be remembered compared to the rest of the information that was more homogeneous in these two aspects. For example, reading the following two lists of words and waiting 5 minutes, which words are we more likely not to forget?
- List 1: apple, pear, banana, banana, kiwi, plum, orangutan, watermelon, melon, orange, mango.
- List 2: car, bus, airplane, motorcycle, bicycle, boat, yacht, train, subway, railroad
Taking these two examples we can see that the isolation effect will occur by making us remember the word "orangutan" from list 1, which stands out semantically, and the word "motorcycle", which stands out perceptually. The first one does so because unlike the rest of the list it is not a fruit, but an animal, and the second one stands out because it is bold and underlined.
Understanding this, what would happen if list 2 were presented in the following way? If it were the first time we were taught it what words do we think would be the most likely to be remembered:
List 2: car, bus, plane, airplane, motorcycle, bicycle, boat, yacht, train, subway, railroad.
Here all the words are underlined and in bold, plus they all refer to means of transportation. None of them stand out because they all have the same characteristics.. In principle, all of them will involve the same cognitive effort when trying to memorize and recall them, since none of them by itself has any particularly striking aspect.
This is what happens when you underline notes. When specific words in the text are underlined, it is more likely that, when reviewing, we will quickly notice them because they are visually different from the rest of the page. Because they have caught our attention, we remember them better. However, if the whole page or almost the whole page is underlined, what will attract our attention in visual terms will be the white partwhich could be the margins or a single word that we have not colored. This would not produce the Von Restorff effect and, therefore, underlining would not have done us much good.
If you underline well, i.e., only what are key ideas and words, you are speeding up the study process a lot. When reviewing, you will resort to the key ideas and you will be able to put into practice a student strategy that has proven to be one of the most effective: evocation. By forcing themselves to remember the contents, the students put into practice something that they will have to do on the day of the exam, which is to explain on the paper what they are asked.
If they have the key ideas marked in the book, when they practice recalling, in case they do not remember the contents they will simply have to go to the page they do not remember, read what they have underlined and try to recall it again, instead of having to read the whole page and waste time. Having underlined the key ideas properly and trying to remember them out loud makes underlining do help to study better, since it will make it easier to memorize them.It will make it easier to memorize and recall them.
How to make underlining useful?
In view of the above, it is clear that underlining, although it is not as powerful a technique as recall, if done well can help us in our studies. For underlining to be useful, it must be done well, that is, underlining the key ideas and avoiding making the classic mistake that all students have made more than once: painting the entire page with the underlining pen. It is not that the more we underline, the more we will learn, but the less things will catch our attention and the more difficult it will be to find the key ideas.
Here are some tips for underlining. let's look at some tips for underlining wellWe will now look at some tips on how to underline well, making this strategy really useful in our study and without abusing the markers.
1. Do a first reading
The first thing many students do as soon as they open the book is to arm themselves with their highlighter, start reading the syllabus and underline as they go along. This is the most widespread mistake among the student population, and the one that turns the action of underlining into a total waste of time.
In order to underline the key ideas, we must first know what they are.and we cannot know this at the first reading. Even if we go paragraph by paragraph, it is of no use to us if we do not have a global idea of what the subject is about. As we do not know and we have not read all the contents, our filter of things to take into account is very wide, letting pass any idea that we do not know that is practically all of them.
It is therefore very important to make a first reading without underlining. We must take our time and read the whole subject in depth, without painting the pages. As we read, we will connect some ideas with others, establishing which are more important and which are simpler or which we already knew before.
2. Do active reading
Although some people say that it is enough to do a first reading as a contact, it is important to do a second reading. it is important to do a second reading. In this one the topic will sound a little more familiar, since we will remember something from the first reading. Doing an active reading with some ideas internalized can allow us to better establish which ideas are important, as well as to relate them more easily to each other.
It is during this second reading that it is especially advisable to pay attention to details that, perhaps, during the first reading we skipped or did not pay much attention to because they were more visual than written. Now is a good time to try to understand the images, graphs, maps, figures or any non-written element that gives meaning to the text.
3. Identify the relevant information
Once the first two readings have been done it is time to identify the information that is essential to learn for the exam, the information that is relevant and that we will underline.. This is really the most reflective moment of the review, since we are making an active cognitive effort to discern the important from the chaff.
Now it is time to color the book. We underline the most important information and concepts after having identified them, such as titles, concepts, definitions, dates and other contents of the topic. It is very important not to underline more than 3 words in a row or more than 5 words in a paragraph, since we run the risk of ruining the Von Restorff effect as we mentioned before.
What we can do is to combine underlining formats. For example, we can underline the name of an idea (e.g., Spanish romanticism) and surround its definition with an underline, mark it with a bracket or indicate it with an arrow. As long as almost the entire page is not colored and the key ideas stand out visually, we will be doing a good underlining.
Finally, there is the issue of colors. It is a very good idea to use several different colors, especially more than 4, since this way we can identify different types of key contents using our own chromatic code (e.g. yellow = key idea, blue = author, green = important date, pink = category...). It is preferable to use pastel colors rather than fluorescent ones, especially if we are going to spend many hours studying since these second colors are less comfortable for our eyesight.
Although scientific evidence has shown that there is no statistically significant difference between underlining and just reading a text, it must be said that there are certain nuances to this. It is not the same to underline without knowing what you are underlining as it is to do it after having read, identified, selected and marked the key ideas. When reviewing, if you have marked only the key ideas, your eyes will go to what is important, paying more attention to it and learning it more easily.
As long as it is done properly, underlining is a useful technique. Combined with evocation, i.e., trying to remember what we have learned, visually pointing out what is important helps to study better since in case we are not clear about something it will be enough to look it up in the book, reread the important content and try again to see if it has stayed in our memory.
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- Fowler, R. L., & Barker, A. S. (1974). Effectiveness of highlighting for retention of text material. Journal of Applied Psychology, 59(3), 358.
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- Kelley, M. R. & Nairme, J. S. (2001) von Restorff Revisited: Isolation, generation and memory for order. Journal of Experimental Psychology; 27(1): 54-66.
(Updated at Mar 28 / 2023)