LEARNING HACK #5: Throw out your highlighters

This post is part of a series challenging our assumptions about learning techniques. We’re giving you up to date information from current research into learning to help you learn effectively. Check out the previous post in this series and read the most recent one below.

It is important to make notes, highlight them and re-read them before attempting practice questions or quizzing yourself on a topic.


Actually, re-reading and highlighting information may make us feel super confident, but all we really achieve is that we add information to our short-term memories. If we were tested in a few days time, we wouldn’t remember most of it. We become familiar with the material while we are re-reading, which means that we think we know it, but in fact, we have not mastered the subject at all.

This is called illusions of knowing. An example would be that you have read ten pages of a book, but when you are tested on it you cannot recall what you’ve just read. If you were to re-read those ten pages you may recognise the content because it is familiar, letting yourself believe that you know it when in reality you don’t.

How, then, do we master a subject? By Retrieval Practice: testing ourselves on information that we are learning.

Although it may seem stupid to test ourselves on topics that we don’t yet feel 100% comfortable with, the effort exerted by the brain while we search for an answer is what embeds the material into our long-term memory. Even if we get the answer wrong, we are more likely to remember it correctly the next time.

Constant testing also means that we can’t lie to ourselves. We’ve all been there – we presume we know a subject well because we’ve highlighted a passage and written notes on it, so we move onto the next topic. If we stopped and tested ourselves we would be more likely to find gaps in our knowledge that we would have to confront, not ignore.

(Image Credit)

Want to read more on this topic? Check out these links:

  1. Active recall
  2. How to Become a Straight-A Student: The Unconventional Strategies Real College Students Use to Score High While Studying Less
  3. An introduction to Retrieval Practice by the Learning Scientists
  4. Studying through Active Recall (Video)

What is Up Learn? Up Learn uses artificial intelligence and research from cognitive science to help students achieve A* results. Find out more.

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