Ix-Nay on Highlighters

Pink Highlighter Guy

Pink Highlighter Guy (Photo credit: dogbomb)

According to a report cited in today’s Science Daily …have we mentioned we are big fans of that site?  Why, yes, I believe we have…, rereading and highlighting don’t make the grade when it comes to improving performance.  (Click here to view a summary of the study.) After examining ten common study strategies, the researchers learned that two tactics offered the biggest payoffs: practice testing and distributive practice.

Practice testing is a term that encompasses everything from flashcards to answering end-of-chapter questions to web-based assessments.  In my classes, we call this “feedback,” and many studies show that it is most effective when the feedback is immediate.  Students who participate in a study group that meets in the lounge or at Starbucks are using practice testing as they quiz one another.  This is a strategy that I can introduce on the first day of class by having students make a short list of questions covering what they just learned and then swap lists with one another.  The short quizzes that I give them frequently are a higher-stakes version of the same strategy.

Japanese Flashcards

Japanese Flashcards (Photo credit: muninn.net)

Distributed practice involves spreading the practice over time. It is the opposite of cramming the night before the test.  My most successful students often cite this as their most valuable tip. Most of my students are nontraditional college students with families, jobs, and hectic lives.  Early in the class we discuss ways to use the snippets of time available to them for reviewing content.  Favorite found-time moments include

  • Waiting for a child’s sports practice to be dismissed
  • Waiting rooms of doctors and dentists
  • Waiting for the microwave to “ding”
  • Sitting in the drive-thru
  • Reviewing flashcards while folding laundry
  • One inventive student plastered her bathroom mirror with sticky notes so that she could practice vocabulary while putting on her makeup.
Study group

Study group (Photo credit: UBC Library)

You may be thinking, “But doesn’t everyone know how to do that?”  Not really.  Let me offer an analogy.  I love to cook, and I am no slouch when it comes to food prep techniques.  I subscribe to a popular cooking magazine that offers a monthly selection of tips submitted by readers.  I always pick up at least one strategy that makes cooking easier and more enjoyable.  I’m delighted when visitors to my kitchen are surprised by my latest aha! trick.    “Now why didn’t I think of that?” is the usual response.

The advice that students offer to one another is more effective than what I dispense from the front desk, so I regularly solicit their comments in class, and I post “survivor tips” on my class website.  I have a beaker full of orphaned highlighters on my lab desk right now, so maybe my students were ahead of the curve in abandoning them.


One comment on “Ix-Nay on Highlighters

  1. Brian says:

    When I studied for my comps in English, I used dozens and dozens of 5X7 cards and put a source on each card and key points. I carried that stack of cards, or select little stacks out of it, around with me for several months. It’s amazing how many slivers or even chunks of time pop up to use for a little review. Brian

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