Scientific Research Shows Why Highlighting Is A Waste Of Your Time

Most of us have been there…highlight this, circle that, highlight this other thing over here. It makes us feel like we are doing something, but does it really help us learn and remember when it counts on the CPA Exam?

In 2013, five professors of psychology from Duke University, Kent State University, the University of Wisconsin and the University of Virginia tested 10 different types of learning strategies to determine which ones work and which don’t.

You can find the study here:

Highlighting Is No Better Than Reading

One of their major findings was that highlighting, circling and underlining are the most ineffective of the 10 study strategies they evaluated.

From the study:

“However, most studies have shown no benefit of highlighting (as it is typically used) over and above the benefit of simply reading, and thus the question concerning the generality of the benefits of highlighting is largely moot.”



Some studies cited by the authors even showed that highlighting and underlining resulted in lower test scores when too much material was highlighted and when students were asked to make connections between ideas rather than just regurgitate facts. (Click to Tweet)

Why Highlighting Doesn’t Help You Remember

Before getting to the rest of the researchers’ findings, it is worthwhile at this point to consider the 4 phases of learning and memory – 1) Attention 2) Encoding 3) Storage and 4) Retrieval. If you do not give something your attention, you will not be able to retrieve or remember it. (Click to Tweet)

In the book, Moonwalking With Einstein, which is about improving human memory, the author tells a story about how he is able to memorize the specific order of an entire shuffled deck of cards in about a minute, but still cannot remember where he parked his car. He paid outrageously close attention to the deck of cards, but none at all to where he parked.

Paying attention to a fact or an idea is a prerequisite for it to be remembered. Highlighting does not require you to pay attention to what you are highlighting. You may pay attention to each item you highlight or circle, but you may also find yourself on autopilot for long periods of time, just highlighting what you are told without really thinking about it.

If You Really Insist On Highlighting…

In the study of the 10 learning strategies, the researchers concluded that even though highlighting is a poor study strategy, students will continue to use it and teachers will continue to encourage it, so students should be taught the most effective way to highlight. The most effective way to do it is to highlight as little as possible. The researchers determined that this forces students to think critically about the material and determine what is important and what is not important.

From the study:

“Marking too much text is likely to have multiple consequences. First, overmarking reduces the degree to which marked text is distinguished from other text, and people are less likely to remember marked text if it is not distinctive (Lorch, Lorch, & Klusewitz, 1995). Second, it likely takes less processing to mark a lot of text than to single out the most important details. Consistent with this latter idea, benefits of marking text may be more likely to be observed when experimenters impose explicit limits on the amount of text students are allowed to mark.”



Highlighting Is A Waste Of Your Study Time

While you are studying for the CPA exam, how many times have you looked at your book and realized 75% (or more) of the page is covered in yellow highlights or red circles? Based on the scientific research, highlighting is a waste of your time and could even reduce your CPA Exam score. (Click to Tweet)













  1. […] your study session is how powerful the study method is that you are using.  We already know that highlighting doesn’t help you learn. You can spend a lot of time studying, but if you are not using effective study methods, you are […]

  2. Tim845 January 10, 2017 at 11:48 pm - Reply

    I agree highlighting does not store and retrieve, so is a waste of time, because you many highlight something before you realise it repeats again and again in the passage. Bur circling headings and subheadings to get some idea of how big the learning is – and how the writer has compartmentalised the passage I think is one of the best ways to divide your learning up to manageable bits of no longer then 20mins to keep attention in place.

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