RESEARCH INTO PRACTICE
Highlighting and Its Relation to Distributed Study
and Students’Metacognitive Beliefs
Carole L. Yue &Benjamin C. Storm &Nate Kornell &
Elizabeth Ligon Bjork
Published online: 22 July 2014
#Springer Science+Business Media New York 2014
Abstract Use of highlighting is a prevalent study strategy among students, but evidence
regarding its benefit for learning is mixed. We examined highlighting in relation to distributed
study and students’attitudes about highlighting as a study strategy. Participants read a text
passage twice while highlighting or not, with their readings either distributed or massed, and
followed by a week-delayed test. An overall benefit of highlighting occurred, with highlighting
being especially beneficial with massed readings of the passages. Importantly, highlighting did
not impair knowledge of non-highlighted information. Interestingly, those students reporting
that they did not think highlighting was beneficial or were unsure about its benefits actually
benefitted more from highlighting than did students who were pro-highlighting. Overall, our
results indicate that under some conditions, highlighting can be a beneficial study strategy for
learning and argue for students being trained in how to optimize the potential benefits of their
Keywords Highlighting .Spacing .Text marking .Metacognitive beliefs about study strategies
One needs only to browse through used textbooks in a college bookstore to see that text-
marking, either by highlighting or underlining, is a ubiquitous practice among students, with
many believing that marking text will help them remember the selected information better or
make a later study session more effective. Whether text-marking actually does benefit later
recall, however, is debatable: Several studies have shown a significant benefit for underlined or
highlighted text (e.g., Fass and Schumacher 1978; Fowler and Barker 1974; Nist and Hogrebe
Educ Psychol Rev (2015) 27:69–78
C. L. Yue (*)
Covenant College, 14049 Lookout Mountain, GA 30750, USA
B. C. Storm
University of California, Santa Cruz, Santa Cruz, CA, USA
Williams College, Williamston, MA, USA
E. L. Bjork
University of California, Los Angeles, Los Angeles, CA, USA
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1987; Nist and Simpson 1988; Johnson 1988; Rickards and August 1975), whereas others
have not (e.g., Arnold 1942; Hoon 1974; Idstein and Jenkins 1972; Peterson 1992; Stordahl
and Christensen 1956; Wade and Trathen 1989). Given the prevalence of highlighting as a
study technique among students, however, learning more about the circumstances under which
it might be (or could be made to be) a more effective strategy seems a worthwhile goal from an
educational standpoint, particularly if such research might reveal guidelines that could be
given to students regarding how to make highlighting more beneficial for their learning.
Potential Advantages of Highlighting
There are several reasons to expect text-marking to benefit learning. From a depth-of-processing
perspective, just the act of deciding what to mark and what not to mark may lead students to
process textual information at a deeper, more evaluative level than they would when simply
reading it (Craik and Lockhart 1972;NistandHogrebe1987). Consistent with this idea, learner-
generated highlighting tends to produce better test performance than experimenter-generated
highlighting (Fowler and Barker 1974;RickardsandAugust1975;RickardsandDenner1979;
but see Nist and Hogrebe 1987). Additionally, when students are trained in highlighting tech-
niques (i.e., to read a paragraph, decide what is conceptually important, and then highlight that
information), they perform better than studentswhodonotreceivesuchtraining(Leutneretal.
2007), indicating that appropriate cognitive activity during highlighting can enhance its benefits.
Another potential benefit of text-marking could be a type of von Restorff effect (Wallace 1965).
Specifically, highlighting may make the marked portion of text more memorable because it stands
out from the surrounding non-highlighted text. Indeed, some evidence supports this type of role for
highlighting: When students read pre-highlighted passages, they recall more of the highlighted
information and less of the non-highlighted information compared to students who receive an
unmarked copy of the same passage (Fowler and Barker 1974;SilversandKreiner1997).
Highlighting might also enhance the effectiveness of re-study opportunities via encoding
variability. Varying the context or particular processes involved in repeated learning opportunities
has been found to facilitate performance on later tests of retention and transfer, the explanation
being that learning is less likely to become contextualized under such circumstances (e.g., Smith
et al. 1978). Variability is presumed to be effective because it increases the likelihood that
participants will encode to-be-learned information in slightly different ways, thus increasing their
ability to retrieve that information when tested in another context in the future. By selectively
marking text, learners change the text as they read it; consequently, when re-reading marked text,
learners may read and encode that text in a new way, thereby making it more memorable.
Potential Disadvantages of Highlighting
In contrast to these arguments, others have argued that selectively highlighting text might be
ineffective or even detrimental to learning (Dunlosky et al. 2013; Idstein and Jenkins 1972;
Peterson 1992; Stordahl and Christensen 1956). One argument is that students often do not
know how to highlight effectively, so such activity primarily amounts to a mechanism for
tracking progress and does not involve deeper processing (Stordahl and Christensen 1956; Bell
and Limber 2010). Another relevant factor is whether students are accustomed to using a
highlighter (Brown and Smiley 1978). Forcing readers who never use highlighters to do so
may interfere with their learning and prevent them from employing the type of encoding
techniques they usually find beneficial (Howe and Singer 1975).
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Additionally, students’metacognitive beliefs about highlighting may limit its effec-
tiveness as a learning tool. Students who rely on highlighters and think they are
particularly effective, for example, may suffer from an illusion of knowing or compe-
tence (Bjork 1999,2013;KoriatandBjork2005). Specifically, such students may
process highlighted material in a less meaningful way when re-reading than if that
material were not highlighted. While re-reading, such students may only quickly glance
over highlighted text, incorrectly assuming that because they have already highlighted
that information, it is deeply encoded in memory, a misbelief that is probably supported
by the apparent processing fluency that learners would experience during such re-
reading. In this way, highlighting could ironically impair memory for critical informa-
tion by preventing students from restudying the information in a way that effectively
promotes long-term retention (cf. Peterson 1992).
Highlighting and the Distribution of Study
In evaluating the efficacy of text-marking, it is important to consider that students often
mark text for the purpose of guiding their future study. For example, in a survey of 472
undergraduates, 60 % reported using marked passages as a guide for later restudy
(Kornell and Bjork 2007). Thus, it seems critical to examine how text-marking might
interact with the spacing of study activities. Distributed study, or spacing, is a desirable
difficulty in that it typically results in greater long-term retention even though it can make
learning feel more difficult during encoding (Bjork 1994; Bjork and Bjork 2011). Indeed,
spaced study of educationally relevant materials has been repeatedly shown to improve
retention compared to massed study (e.g., Dempster 1996;Kornell2009; Sobel et al.
Highlighting, however, might actually be more beneficial in massed conditions than
in spaced conditions. Massed study is often presumed to be inferior to spaced study
because it involves less encoding variability and because it limits the effectiveness of
the second study opportunity (Hintzman 1974). If highlighting attenuates these disad-
vantages by leading learners to encode the passage differently in a second reading, such
beneficial effects should be relatively greater in massed than spaced conditions. More-
over, active highlighting might possibly dispel the misleading effects of fluency that
tend to discourage deep processing of information upon re-reading. If so, because the
sense of fluency would be stronger the closer in time the second reading follows the
first, such an effect of highlighting should be more beneficial the sooner the second
reading follows the first.
Overview of the Present Study
The goals of the present research were to assess possible benefits of highlighting as well as
individual differences in the use of highlighting and to explore effects of highlighting in
relation to distributed study and metacognitive beliefs about highlighting as a study tool. To
this end, we asked students to study a passage twice, either massed (i.e., back-to-back with no
separation between study opportunities) or spaced (i.e., successive study opportunities sepa-
rated by a 30-min interval), with half studying the passages without using a highlighter and
half studying the passage using a highlighter. All participants then took a test after a 1-week
delay. We also collected data on students’highlighting preferences.
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A total of 184 UCLA undergraduates (M
=19.9) participated for partial credit in a psychol-
Participants read a passage about ground water (856 words) from the U.S. Geological Survey
website. Twelve critical phrases, each containing a different keyword, were selected from the
passage (e.g., the term recharge was the keyword in the phrase: Water seeping down from the
land surface adds to the ground water and is called recharge water.). Then, 12 fill-in-the-
blank questions were created from these phrases by deleting the keyword and asking partic-
ipants to provide it on the final test (e.g., Water seeping down from the land surface adds to the
ground water and is called __________ water).
Design and Procedure
Participants were randomly assigned to either the highlighting or no-highlighting conditions
and to either the massed or spaced re-reading conditions; thus, our design employed two
between-subject variables: highlighting and spacing.
Upon arrival, participants were seated alone at a desk and asked to read the passage in its
entirety, which they were given 6 min to do. Participants in the highlighting condition received
a standard yellow highlighter and told to use it however they typically would while studying
material for a class. Participants in the no-highlighting condition were not given a highlighter
and were simply instructed to read the passage as though they were studying material for a
After the initial reading, participants in the massed condition were immediately asked to
study the passage again, while those in the spaced condition participated in a 30-min unrelated
distractor activity before re-studying the passage. In the highlighting condition, participants re-
read their previously highlighted passage (with their markings still there) and were again told
to use the highlighter however they typically would while studying for a class. Participants in
the no-highlighting condition were simply instructed to re-read the passage as though they
were studying for a class.
After the second reading, all participants were given a brief questionnaire asking them to
indicate the extent to which they either agreed or disagreed with a set of statements exploring
their metacognitive beliefs about learning and study strategies, such as, “I feel that highlighters
As a separate manipulation, we also explored whether the benefits of testing (Roediger and Karpicke 2006)
might interact with highlighting. Specifically, participants were given an immediate test on six of the twelve fill-
in-the-blank questions shortly after the second reading of the passage. All twelve questions were then tested after
the 1-week delay, allowing us to assess the benefits of the earlier test. Although we observed a large benefit of
testing, F(1, 180)=102.99, MSE= 4.24, p<0.001, with keywords tested immediately remembered significantly
better on the delayed test (M=0.47, SE=0.02) than were keywords not tested immediately (M=0.26, SE=0.02),
the effect of testing did not interact with either the spacing (p=0.83) or highlighting (p=0.33) manipulations.
Consequently, for the sake of succinctness, and because educators are most likely to be interested in how
highlighting affects long-term learning and performance, we collapsed all data from the tested versus non-tested
conditions and report only one score to reflect the week-delayed final recall performance.
72 Educ Psychol Rev (2015) 27:69–78
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are an important part of my studying.”One week later, all participants were given the fill-in-
the-blank test for the 12 critical phrases from the passage.
Results and Discussion
How Do Highlighting and Spacing Affect Learning?
Average correct performance obtained on the final fill-in-the-blank test in each of our four
conditions is illustrated in Fig. 1, and as indicated there, one of our pre-study conjectures—that
highlighting might be more beneficial in massed than spaced conditions—did receive some
support. Planned-comparison t-tests revealed that whereas a nonsignificant benefit of
highlighting was observed in the spaced condition (M=0.04 benefit), t(90)=0.92, p=0.36,
d=0.19, a robust and significant benefit of highlighting was observed in the massed condition
(M=0.12 benefit), t(90)=2.89, p<0.01, d=0.60.
Additionally, we performed an overall analysis on our data using a 2(spaced vs. massed)×
2(highlighting vs. no-highlighting) between-subjects ANOVA. Not surprisingly, given the
pattern of results shown in Fig. 1, there was no main effect of spacing, F(1, 180) <1, MSE=
0.03, with performance averaged across the two massed conditions (M=0.37, SE=0.02) not
differing from that averaged across the two spaced condition (M=0.36, SE= 0.02); but, there
was a significant main effect of highlighting, with the average performance of highlighters
(M=0.40; SE=0.02) being significantly better than the average performance of non-
highlighters (M=0.32; SE= 0.02), F(1, 180)= 7.22, MSE= 0.57, p<0.01. The interaction be-
tween highlighting and spacing, however, did not reach statistical significance, F(1, 180)=
1.93, MSE=0.15, p=0.17.
Given the typical robustness of the spacing effect that we did not find a benefit of spacing
even for the non-highlighters would suggest that our particular spacing manipulation was not
sufficiently strong. Indeed, because our to-be-leaned material was a three-page text passage
requiring up to 6 min to read once, a participant’s re-encountering of given key phrases would
have been spaced by several minutes even in our massed condition. Thus, the interval between
spaced encounters of the same key phrases may have not been sufficiently increased in our
spacing condition versus our massed condition to allow a spacing benefit to emerge.
Proportion of Keywords Recalled on
Fig. 1 Final test performance by spacing and highlighting conditions
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How Do Individual Differences in Highlighting Behavior Affect Learning?
Overall, participants highlighted an average of 191.9 (SE=13.5) words (Mdn =175), and
their highlighting behavior was quite efficient. Despite participants highlighting only
22.4 % of the passage, an average of 8.7 (SE=0.27) or 72.5 % of the 12 critical
keywords were included in their highlighting. Eighty-one participants highlighted some
keywords but not others, allowing for within-subjects comparisons of recall for
highlighted versus non-highlighted keywords. We first examined whether highlighted
information was better recalled than non-highlighted information, and importantly, it
was. Participants were more likely to answer a test question correctly if they had
highlighted information relevant to that question (M=0.44) than if they had not (M=
0.30), t(80)=3.67, p<0.01, d=0.50. Furthermore, recall performance of highlighting
participants for non-highlighted material was no different from the recall performance
of non-highlighting participants (M=0.32), t(174)= 0.56, p=0.58. Thus, highlighting
appears to improve the retention of highlighted material without significant cost to the
retention of the non-highlighted material—a finding inconsistent with the von Restorff
To explore a possible relationship between highlighting activity and later recall, we
conducted a median-split analysis separating participants into heavy highlighters and light
highlighters. As shown in Table 1, heavy highlighters marked significantly more words than
light highlighters, t(90)= 9.41, p<0.001, d=1.96, including more keywords, t(90) =3.81,
p<0.001, d=0.97. Importantly, however, heavy highlighters did not outperform light
highlighters at final test. If anything, light highlighters numerically outperformed heavy
highlighters, suggesting that the benefits of highlighting do not stem from the mere act of
Possibly, the light highlighters put more cognitive effort and analysis into deciding what to
highlight, resulting in fewer highlighted words, but deeper processing of those words com-
pared to words highlighted by heavy highlighters. We explored this conjecture by calculating
an efficiency score: the number of keywords highlighted divided by the total number of words
highlighted. By this measure, light highlighters were significantly more efficient (M=0.08,
SE= 0.01) than heavy highlighters (M=0.03, SE= 0.01), t(89)= 7.20, p<0.01, d=1.50. Thus, it
would appear that light highlighters were more selective in their highlighting than heavy
highlighters, perhaps reflecting more cognitive effort being given to their highlighting
How do Students’Beliefs about Highlighting Relate to the Benefits of Highlighting?
According to the questionnaire responses, many students use highlighters and believe them to
be an important component of their studying. When asked to rate the statement, “I typically
read my text books while using a highlighter”on a scale from 1–9—with 1 meaning
“completely disagree,”5 meaning “unsure,”and 9 meaning “completely agree”—48 % of
Table 1 Highlighting activity and final test performance by highlighting-classification group
Total words highlighted
Final test performance
Heavy highlighters 282.8 (17.7) 9.7 (0.3) 0.39 (0.03)
Light highlighters 101.0 (7.8) 7.8 (0.4) 0.41 (0.03)
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the participants selected a 7 or above (M=5.5; SD= 2.8). Furthermore, when asked to rate the
statement, “I feel that highlighters are an important part of my studying”using the same 1-9
scale, 41 % of the participants selected a 7 or above (M=5.3; SD=2.6). If anything, these
ratings probably underestimate student text-marking behavior, as participants may have
restricted their responses to highlighting, discounting similar text-marking activities such as
To see whether differences in opinions about highlighting predicted differences in
highlighting activity or recall performance, we separated participants into three groups: pro-
highlighters, unsure, and anti-highlighters. Pro-highlighters were the 74 participants rating the
statement, “I feel that highlighters are an important part of my studying”with a 7 or above;
unsure participants were the 55 participants rating the statement between 4 and 6, and anti-
highlighters were the 55 participants rating the statement 3 or below. Unsurprisingly, a main
effect of group was observed on highlighting activity, F(2,89)=4.39, MSE =68,812.20,
p<0.05. As shown in Table 2, pro-highlighters and those who were unsure highlighted
significantly more words than did anti-highlighters, t(63)= 3.35, p<0.01, d=0.86, t(52)=
2.19, p= 0.03, d=0.60, respectively, and a similar pattern was observed for keywords
To see if opinions about the importance of highlighting were related to retention, we
conducted a 2(highlighting vs. no-highlighting)×2(spaced vs. massed)×3(pro-highlighters
vs. unsure vs. anti-highlighters) between-subjects ANOVA on the final test scores. Spacing
did not interact significantly with any variable, so we collapsed across the massed and spaced
conditions. Interestingly, a significant effect of group emerged, such that anti-highlighters (M=
0.45; SE=0.03) outperformed unsure participants (M=0.37; SE= 0.03), who outperformed
pro-highlighters (M=0.30; SE=0.02), F(2, 172)=9.60, MSE=0.34, p<0.001, with individual
t-tests confirming each of the between-group differences to be statistically significant, average
Although anti-highlighters outperformed pro-highlighters, we nonetheless expected
pro-highlighters to benefit most from being allowed to use a highlighter. As shown in
Tab le 2, however, the opposite was observed. Anti-highlighters benefited marginally from
use of a highlighter (M=10 % benefit), t(53)=1.69, p=0.09, d=0.50, and unsure partic-
ipants benefited significantly (M=17 % benefit), t(53)=3.92, p<0.001, d= 1.00), but pro-
highlighters did not benefit at all (M= 0 % benefit), t(72) <1. The interaction between
highlighting group and highlighting condition was statistically significant, F(2, 172)=
3.90, MSE=0.14, p=0.02.
Table 2 Highlighting activity and final test performance by highlighting efficacy and belief classification
Experimental condition and belief
Final test performance
Pro-highlighters 219.9 (20.3) 8.9 (.4) 0.30 (0.03)
Unsure highlighters 212.2 (24.1) 7.6 (.6) 0.45 (0.03)
Anti-highlighters 132.1 (24.1) 9.6 (.3) 0.50 (0.04)
Pro-highlighters ––0.30 (0.03)
Unsure highlighters ––0.28 (0.03)
Anti-highlighters ––0.40 (0.04)
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The goal of the present research was to explore potential benefits of highlighting in relation to
distributed study and students’metacognitive beliefs about highlighting as a study tool. We
found that highlighting improved later cued recall of highlighted information without
impairing recall of non-highlighted information from a text passage, a finding that is incon-
sistent with a von Restorff-based explanation. That is, highlighting did not seem to enjoy its
benefit merely by making highlighted text stand out upon re-study. Furthermore, we found that
the benefit of highlighting was numerically greater when participants read the passage twice
without delay, suggesting that highlighting may be particularly beneficial when students re-
read text passages immediately.
The results of the present research suggest that highlighting, far from being an ineffective
study technique (Dunlosky et al. 2013), can facilitate long-term retention—particularly when
students, possibly owing to limited available study time, engage in massed re-readings or study
sessions. In such situations, students could probably improve the effectiveness of their study
via selective highlighting because such a practice would lead them to think about why they
initially selected certain words or phrases to highlight, resulting in deeper processing during
If initial highlighting does encourage learners to engage in such considerations about
previously highlighted material, then highlighting might have some of its beneficial ef-
fects—as suggested earlier—by serving to dispel the misleading effect of fluency arising
during a subsequent re-reading. Indeed, the sense of fluency typically felt during an immediate
re-reading has been suggested as a major factor in why two back-to-back readings of a chapter
result in no better learning than just one reading (Callender and McDaniel 2009). Accordingly,
times when a sense of fluency is high and most likely to discourage deep processing on a
second reading should also be the times when having previously highlighted the passage
would be most beneficial—a pattern consistent with our finding of a greater benefit for
highlighting when text readings were massed versus spaced.
A surprising finding of the present study is that participants who valued highlighters the
most profited least from their use. One possible reason for this finding is that participants who
were unaccustomed to highlighting put more effort into the act of highlighting, with the
ultimate result of better retention. From this perspective, highlighting could be characterized
as a desirable difficulty, at least for some students, because it forces them to think about and
process text differently than they typically would and in a way that ultimately leads to better
memory for that text. These results also suggest that even if participants were prevented from
engaging in the type of study processes they normally employ, the costs of such prevention did
not outweigh the benefits of using a highlighter.
Our results also indicate that training students how to highlight effectively could help
promote useful study strategies. Students often re-read text passages as a study activity, and
indeed, many rate it as their no. 1 study activity (Dunlosky et al. 2013; Karpicke et al. 2009;
Kornell and Bjork 2007,2009). Presumably, then, students are highly likely to persist in this
activity. Accordingly, instructing them how to do so optimally would seem not just warranted,
but obligatory. Highlighting training such as that proposed by Leutner et al. (2007), for
example, could well be helpful in furthering this goal, even—or perhaps especially—for those
who already believe that highlighting is a beneficial study technique. Such training should
involve encouraging students to think carefully about which sections of the text should be
highlighted and to justify their choices, as well as asking those questions again when re-
reading a previously highlighted section. Such questioning during highlighting and re-reading
should evoke two beneficial activities for improved retention: deeper processing and retrieval
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practice, both of which have been repeatedly shown to improve retention (e.g., Craik and
Lockhart 1972; Roediger and Karpicke 2006).
More generally, the present work provides another example of what Bjork (1999) and
others (e.g., Koriat and Bjork 2005) have referred to as an illusion of competence. Specifically,
learners can be fooled by objective and subjective indices of performance into thinking that a
given manipulation is useful for learning even when it is not. In this context, individuals who
become reliant on highlighters for studying—such as the pro-highlighters or heavy
highlighters in the present study—may think that the act of highlighting is helpful in and of
itself. As the present results confirm, however, simply the act of highlighting text is not
sufficient to promote its retention. Indeed, despite the fact that highlighting a relevant portion
of a text was clearly beneficial, more overall highlighting activity tended to lead to worse—not
better—performance at final test. Clearly, it is not highlighting per se that is beneficial; rather,
it is how highlighting changes the way students read and think about text that is beneficial.
Acknowledgments We thank John Nestojko and Gabriela Pocasangre for their contributions to this project.
This research was supported by Grant 29192G from the James S. McDonnell Foundation.
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