Lost in a Sea of Yellow: Teaching Students a Better Way to Highlight

yellow highlighted text

A lot of students are in love with their highlighters, especially those bright, fluorescent-colored ones. They use them to highlight course materials, sometimes underlining whole pages of text. When I first saw a text so fluorescent that it all but glowed, I wondered why in the world somebody would spend that much time underlining. Later I understood it was really a cry for help. “I can’t tell what’s important, so I’ll just highlight the entire section so I don’t miss something.” Highlighting can be a useful way of interacting with text, but it needs to be done in a thoughtful way.

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A creatively designed study analyzed what faculty, seniors, and first-year students underlined in a piece of primary research in biology. The study contained content familiar to the faculty members. The seniors were biology majors taking a capstone course, and the freshmen were first-year biology students. The questions that motivated the study were pretty straightforward: How do students identify what’s important in an article like this? Assuming they don’t tackle the task the same way experts do, what do they do differently, and how can they be taught to read more like the experts?

The results weren’t all that unexpected. Faculty readers pretty much agreed on what was and wasn’t important in the article. The seniors and the freshmen didn’t agree all that much with each other or with the faculty, although the seniors agreed more closely with the faculty than the freshmen did. The researchers concluded that the seniors had developed some degree of scientific literacy during their undergraduate careers. (If more specific details are of interest, find them in the study.)

It’s the study design that I found most intriguing, and I wondered if it might be a strategy that could help students interact with their assigned readings more effectively. Start by assigning students some course-related material to read and highlight—you can decide if they need a few points to take the task seriously. Then give them a copy of the material with your highlights and encourage discussion on how the two compare and contrast. You could also challenge students to consider how they decide what needs to be underlined. Are there ways to tell when something is important in a text, an essay, or a short story? Is highlighting useful only in identifying what’s important? What about underlining things you don’t understand or passages that relate to content being talked about in class or covered in previous chapters?

The study authors point out that novice science readers usually approach text in a linear fashion. They start at the beginning and read through to the end. I’d say that’s pretty typical of how most students approach all kinds of text. In the case of science studies, the authors note that experienced readers tend to start with the title and the abstract, using those to decide if a paper is of interest. If it is, they often jump to results and consider the findings. Then they might look at the methodology to ascertain if it’s sound, and finally, depending on their level of interest, they consider the review of literature and discussion sessions. I suspect the way experts read content in every field is somewhat unique. The question is when and how are these approaches taught to students?

Some observations get pointed out pretty regularly in this blog—sorry for repeating this one. Most of our students don’t have college-level reading skills. One of the reasons they don’t do their reading is because it’s hard, and just like the rest of us, they find excuses to avoid doing what’s difficult. This is why it is essential that we do what we can to promote the development of skills that make reading college-level materials a less daunting task. A more strategic approach to highlighting is an easy place to help students explore how they know when something’s important and whether that’s the only reason to highlight. From there we might venture into what they can do with what they’ve underlined when they’re studying for an exam.

Gallo, M., & Rinaldo, V. (2012). Towards a mastery understanding of critical reading in biology: The use of highlighting by students to assess their value judgment of the importance of primary literature. Journal of Microbiology & Biology Education, 13(2), 142–149. https://doi.org/10.1128/jmbe.v13i2.493

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