Highlighting is a Waste of Time

Highlighting is a waste of time according to a comprehensive report released on Jan 9th 2013 by the Association for Psychological Science. The authors, led by Kent State University professor John Dunlosky, looked at various learning tactics and rated each from high to low utility. You can read the full report by clicking on the above link or for a summary have a look at this article in Time.

The authors conclude that the most effective learning techniques are distributed study sessions (last minute cramming is not effective) and more practice testing, the use of flash cards can be very helpful with this, as the conclusion to the Time article states ‘ditch your highlighter and get busy with your flash cards’.

A TES user has uploaded an excellent resource: Effective learning/study techniques which summarizes the work well and provides some great ideas for the classroom. I really like the ‘Cup of questions’ idea – I’ll be trying that! In fact the ideas given are very much in line with my own thinking, I have said before that I have become convinced of the need for frequent recall, perhaps even more true in the UK now that students are assessed with linear exams. Something I do regularly and certainly plan to do in this coming academic year for all my classes from age 11 to 18 is ask them some questions at the beginning or end of a lesson to see if they can recall recent (or not so recent!) work. See this file for an example: Mini-test example. The questions are short and can just be read out for students to write responses in their exercise books (making this a great starter – no IT or resources required). The questions in my example here are just recall type questions on a variety of topics but could of course be a series of questions on just one topic. Questions requiring higher order thinking skills could also be used (see Rich Questions for ideas). I have added a new page to which I will add any mini-test resources.

I think this type of exercise is valuable at any time, not just at examination time and we should spend time regularly helping our students recall current or earlier work. If they have a basic ‘toolkit’ with which they are comfortable and secure they have a foundation to which they can link new learning to.

 A really useful source of questions which can be used this way are the mental tests from CIMT; these are included with their resources for Years 7, 8 and 9 and also for GCSE. For Key Stage 3 (ages 11-14) scroll down this page for the Year 7, Year 8 and Year 9 course material, the resources include mental tests as part of the teacher support material. On the GCSE page scroll down to the teacher support material and note the mental tests available for most units, see this on Formulae for example.

Be imaginative with homework, it does’t have to be on the current topic – it could be on last week’s topic…or last month’s…or something you have not done yet!

The Collective Memory resources on TES are ideal in helping students understand and recall information and link ideas together. These can be used in a variety of ways which are fully described in the article. (A further set of resources is available here). Last year my GCSE students created several posters of their own which they found a very useful revision activity.

Bubbl'us diagram

Some students find mind maps helpful to recall information, I have seen students create some excellent diagrams with Bubbl’us for example. For some more online revision tools including some to make flashcards the resources mentioned here may be helpful

As I write I am reminded of a favourite quote from John von Neumann who said “Young man, in mathematics you don’t understand things. You just get used to them.” I know that for me, when I am more used to ideas I feel I understand them better. If we help our students recall all the basics – perhaps they will feel more secure – and confident.

2 comments on “Highlighting is a Waste of Time

  1. Good post, and I quite agree about the highlighters – I’ve never owned one in my life, and much of that lifetime spent taking exams of some sort. Far better to be doing stuff, whether teacher directed or teacher supplied, and covering all aspects. (If you look at the recent Excel linear exam, the question done most badly was a simple decimal place value question, which only 4% got correct on the foundation paper.) I use written stuff, Powerpoints, and mental stuff at the start and end of each lesson for looking back, looking forward and just keeping topics alive in the mind of the learners.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s