Put the Highlighter Down and Nobody Gets Hurt
By Hannah Turner
You’re sitting in class, pulling out your notebook and pencil when you see her. She’s sitting in the front row, right in the center of the classroom. It’s highlighter girl, and she has her game face on today. Her laptop is open and sits to her left, the lecture slides are printed out sitting directly in front of her, pens, pencils and erasers are ready to go on her right, and she has every color highlighter imaginable at her disposal. Class starts and highlighter girl stays true to her name, adding color to nearly every line of text on those printed slides, switching between markers rapidly as she goes. She seems like she really knows what she’s doing. You look down at your notes and can’t help but feel inferior, like you’re missing something. Weeks later, the class gets the first test back. When students are comparing scores you’re surprised to find that highlighter girl didn’t do very well… Maybe you weren’t missing something after all.
One of the most important things you can learn in undergrad is how to streamline the note taking and studying processes to allow for maximum learning in a minimal amount of time - you have to learn how to be efficient . Everyone seems to have their own method, and many students tend to complicate the process with no real return on investment. Throughout my college career I have had to find ways to increase my studying and note taking efficiency to create more time for myself. Between upper level science coursework, extracurriculars, part-time and often even full-time work, more time is something that I desperately needed to be successful. Below are a few of the things I learned along the way that allowed me to maintain a 3.9 cumulative GPA and a 3.97 science GPA with a busy schedule in a science heavy major.
Put Your Pack of Highlighters Down
It’s easy to be enticed by underlining and highlighting the text on those lecture slides, but in reality you aren’t accomplishing much. The idea that these methods are useful in a note taking capacity comes from the Von Restorff Effect, which states that differentiating text by using color makes it stand out against other words on the page, aiding in memory recall. The problem here is that the information on a lecture slide has already been summarized and contains only the most salient, concise points, so you’re often tempted to highlight much of the text on the slide. If the majority of the text on a page is highlighted, you are defeating the purpose of highlighting entirely.
Another issue with highlighting and underlining is that these methods are largely ineffective for actively processing information compared to other note taking methods. Writing out your notes forces you to condense and summarize information in your own words, allowing the learning process to begin. If you instead only pick up your highlighter and move it across the page, you’re accomplishing much less.
Don’t take the bait! Actively take notes in lecture and put your highlighters away. Consider keeping one highlighter or pen out to make note of extremely important information, and resist the urge to colorize.
Note Taking, the Better Way
The better way to retain information is to actively take notes, and to take them by hand. Studies have shown that those who used laptops in class had a more shallow understanding of lecture material and performed more poorly on tests, especially with conceptual questions. This is even worse when students are multitasking with their laptops during lecture, creating a distraction for themselves.
Although with a laptop students are able to take more notes, there is little processing involved in transcribing the material. Due to the time constraints associated with taking notes by hand, students are required to actively condense and summarize information throughout lecture while focusing on the most relevant pieces of information. This means that the learning starts from the moment the pen hits the paper, building a solid foundation for studying in the future.
I believe that for nearly every undergraduate level course, note taking by hand is the superior method, as the speed at which the material is delivered tends to be fairly manageable. When considering graduate level coursework, I do feel that courses move at a more rigorous pace and typing can become a necessity. The moral of the story here is to use your best judgement and prioritize taking notes by hand whenever it is possible.
The Next Step
Taking notes is important, but this will only build the foundation for learning. What you do with your notes will determine how successful you are in your courses. My next article will address the most effective ways to study and provide tips for the best methods to utilize for different prerequisite courses.