Why I Hate Highlighters!

In Evidence in Education, Memory for Learning, Research Evidence, Teaching & Learning by Alex Quigley26 Comments

As an English teacher I am surely granted the eternal power of an exaggeration fueled headline every once in a while. Ok – so perhaps highlighters aren’t the biggest problem in education, but if you know me well, you may have heard my complaint whereat these gaudy coloured pens symbolize some deep rooted issues with teaching and learning as I see it. For me, highlighters can represent how our habits of teaching and learning can go unexamined and how we can too easily waste time and money each year by not being truly critical about our practice in the classroom.

Let me first be clear. I have spent years with students using them with some guidance that I thought was enough. As a subject leader I have commissioned the purchase of hundreds of packs of highlighters. I have likely inadvertently funded a Stabilo Christmas party drinks tab once or twice. Only in the last couple of years I have been more critical of every facet of my own teaching practice and it leads you to ask broader questions about the efficacy of each teaching method, each tool you employ and each passing fad that attracts your eye (especially if it costs money, however seemingly small the budgetary hit).

Last year I debated the purchase of highlighters for year 11 students as a revision tool. This BBC article that cites the research evidence from Dunlovsky et al. (2013), about the ineffectual impact of highlighters as a revision tool, initiated my critical questioning of this minor, but commonly used tool: Revision: The Good, the Bad and the Useless.

Does such research capture my unique context, with my students? No, not exactly, but it is certainly instructive. Too often, we refuse to change our habits in the classroom, hardened as they are by our routines, using the excuse that we are doing things just fine. In the toil and trouble of the working week, we struggle to evaluate what we do; nor do we honestly share when a strategy or intervention isn’t working.

At least twice last year I wandered around my classroom whilst students were doing some mock exam answers. I had trained them, impeccably in my eyes, to annotate their reading text. I had eschewed highlighters because I was skeptical that they were any use. But still, I walked around the room and highlighters were ubiquitous. I watched for a good period of time one able student bedaubed half her source text with a highlighter in a veritable rainbow of colour, completely of her own accord. Her answer, limited by time, was distinctly average. Where was this learnt behaviour from – she wasn’t sure. Did it enhance the quality of her response – sadly, no.

Soon after this experience, I then encountered this article: subtly entitled ‘Here’s Why Highlighting Doesn’t Actually Help You To Remember Anything‘. The article compares the research evidence that places the revision tool of a flash-card over highlighting in terms of remembering knowledge. It highlights a key point:

“And that’s another reason why we lean on highlighting as a study tool: It feels way better than flash cards. Trying to recall something from memory requires mental straining, which can feel unpleasant, while just rereading a highlighted passage is easy and feels rather good.”

The article also links to this excellent summary of the cognitive science book, ‘Make it Stick’, see here, which presents tried and tested revision strategies that corroborate the Dunlovsky evidence in the BBC article. It eschews highlighting and instead focuses upon revision with based on the concept of ‘deliberate difficulty‘ and approaches like ‘retrieval’, ‘interleaving‘ and ‘elaboration‘ – see the article for a really good summary. Out simply, for revision a flashcard is much more useful than highlighting.

So highlighting looks like good work, it looks just like visible learning, but the more objective evidence states that it is little more than colouring in! When you start questioning the use of highlighters you can receive a great deal of resistance (no doubt this post will be rejected by many). What teacher wants their practice and daily habits drawn into question? But it is exactly that type of questioning of what we do, by ourselves, crucially, but by others too, which will help us develop our practice and become better teachers.

All students are different I hear you say? Each to their own. But we only ever have finite time to train our students. The revision they undertake is moulded by the strategies we teach them. In the limited time we have, should we not be choosing to focus on best bets in terms of what helps students learn?

I have been given feedback by teachers that use highlighters regularly that it is useful for effective organization in MFL; that they work best for lesser able students English; that it makes things stand out more than the humble pen.  My question would be: how do you know?  I can assure you that I am not certain that the answer will be what I expect, far from it. The research may be poppycock when translated to your setting, but if we won’t know that if we don’t reflect on the evidence and question our methods.

We should test out our methods, and our biases, with some small scale evaluations as regularly as we can. It needn’t take too much time or effort. Not only that, we should test out our assumptions and biases by reading books like ‘Make It Stick‘, by Brown, Roedgiger and McDaniel, ‘How We Learn‘, by Benedict Carey, and ‘Visible Learning: The Science of how we Learn‘, by John Hattie and Greg Yates. The research is readily available online and the likes of Carey have translated it beautifully for every teacher.

Should this research evidence supplant professional judgement? No. Should it inform our decisions and judgment in the classroom? I would argue yes. If we take this critical lens to every tool we use, be they low-fi highlighters, or rather more expensive tablet technologies, then perhaps our learning will see that we implement these tools with something like success.

Ok, maybe I have daubed the highlighter with some biased, exaggerated criticism, but we should be asking challenging questions of our professional judgement and our teaching habits. Simply by undertaking the act of questioning and reflecting upon our practice, we will inevitably move forward.

We have nothing to lose except brightly coloured paper.






  1. I agree that highlighters have no real merit in terms of memory and revision. However, they are very useful in ‘active reading:’ a great tool to have students start organising their ideas, to keep in mind what they’re looking for in a text and to have ideas ready-organised and easily identifiable in discussions/writing. They are also very helpful in making students’ progress through a text visible to a teacher!

    That said, I grew up without them and never use them myself as I don’t like to close down the meaning of a text on first reading – annotated books in the university library drove me crazy.

    1. Interesting comment Harry, one I have to agree with. Particularly working in a text heavy subject, as we do, the use of highlighters have proven rather useful to sharpen up reading, yielding the advantages you suggest.
      The original post does open up important questions though. I have been driven crazy by my sixth form students who very closely resemble the “reality” image shown above. When called on having translated little into note form or into another format that is suggested, they will happily present a highlighted sheet of paper to and say “look, I’ve done Ireland”. Perhaps we need to be very careful to draw the boundaries with our students, I need to. I will continue to make use of the highlighters to support the reading of large pieces of text and to build in the knowledge ahead of a discussion or some sort of selection & processing of the material, but will think much more carefully about explaining the purposes of any potential highlighting to students & suggest more appropriate ways of committing material to memory.

  2. When highlighters are used against given success criteria, is it the highlighting itself which helps clarify the SC or the ‘anticipation’ of highlighting? Does the latter encourage reflection and meta-cognition? I think your call for grinding out what works and what doesn’t is crucial but I am less sure you have actually justified your title in this post.

    1. I was going to write something similar. The studies cited discredit highlighting as a tool for memorisation, but what about for processing information? Especially when coupled with other tools like writing notes on the margin, or underlining metalanguage. I’m not ready to give up on the flouro just yet!

      1. Author

        Ah, marginalia and reconstructive notes and color coding is a little different. I am happy to consider uses!

        1. I agree with Harry et al on this – this is still a really useful article for highlighting (sorry) the distinction between processing and revision/recall. I’m always planning to get pupils making flash cards but rarely get round to it. This has made me more committed to getting there this year… I think what’s undoubtedly true is that unfocused highlighting which is not supported by annotation is very limited in its impact on learning / performance.

          Over the last few lessons, I’ve had the highlighters out – one technique that I stumbled on which worked well was using the viewer (if you’ve got one) to draw attention to (didn’t say it again!) a student or two who has managed to do something beyond the pointless colouring job we tend to see sometimes. Picking someone who has much less colour (I had one who had just spotlighted the question marks and imperatives – good lad!) sends the right message. You can also scribble extra annotations on as you’re chatting through it. I’ll definitely do this again.

          I suppose my point here is that this article reminds me that the purpose of highlighting and its balance to annotation is yet another thing which needs explicit (and probably regular) modelling to keep the quality up.

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  5. I believe the terem is “you really should get a life”.

    My research shows that highlighters are good for highlightinhg things, to illustrate which is the important information. Discriminating the important from the unimportant is a useful task according to Marzano and his research.

    For me highlighters are not positive or negative per se. For me it is the use that teachers and learners put them to that is the discriminator between useful and useless.

    My advice to you would be that if you do not find them useful then do not use them. I will continue to use them for the tasks and learners for whom they are valuable.

    “For me, highlighters can represent how our habits of teaching and learning can go unexamined and how we can too easily waste time and money each year by not being truly critical about our practice in the classroom.”

    I think it is scandalous that a teacher might spend 99p on a pack of highlighters for the 99p shop, when the money could be better spent promoting the COT or the latest “edumeet”.

    I think I understand the sentiment, but the idea that the use of the odd highlghter my in some way symbolise the causes of the current educational crisis is quite sweet if a little daft.

    1. Author

      Hah – that is my favorite all time comment – thank you! :0)

      When you say “use of the odd highlghter my in some way symbolise the causes of the current educational crisis is quite sweet if a little daft.” please be assured that my tongue was placed delicately in my cheek – hence my comment about hyperbole.

      You make the point that putting them to discriminating use is the thing. Well, that is pretty much the point I was trying to get across.

      I suppose the burden is with me as a writer that I was unclear, but then I did want people reading – hence the title etc. You won’t be the first to tell me to ‘get a life’ instead of blogging, but then perhaps if you are wasting your life reading my blog the joke isn’t solely on me?

      Have a lovely end to the week bt0558!

  6. You can’t get pupils to highlight without training them to effectively analyse the question and thus effectively highlight. You have to teach how to highlight. My gcse group virtually all improved by my particular robotic exam approach. They selectively highlight and use the points as a basis for their embedded answers. I’m a highlighter lover not a fighter

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