Category Archives: Education and Medicine

Death to the Highlighter

I walked in and saw my resident with a teaching degree painting her text with a yellow highlighter. Couldn’t restrain myself, and had to say something. I can’t fully describe the mountain of second hand texts I’ve used that have been literally dipped in fluorescent ink.

pen holder: death to the highlighter Katie T via Compfight

The idea is a reasonable one. A highlighter does move you from passive reading to a more active style of reading. A bit. More, if you do it correctly. No one does.


Want to use a highlighter correctly? Read actively.


Active reading means taking something apart, and putting it back together again, ideally. That means making a graph, constructing a table, doing a drawing, or, most simply, making a summary. It also means making a paragraph out of a table, or a graph. A standard method of looking at scientific papers is to look at raw data, and see what you can come up with yourself. You’ve read the title, and the abstract. It’s enough to get your interest, and see what they think. What do you think? That’s right, not reading the discussion, but looking at the data, and thinking.


How do you take a textbook chapter apart? One standard approach is the following: 1) Read the summary, FIRST. Uncommonly, they’re at the front of a chapter. Usually, they’re at the end. Read that slowly, carefully. You may not understand much of it. That’s Good! It raises all sorts of subconscious, and some not so subconscious questions in your mind. It makes you read to try to find an answer. 2) Read all the headlines, bold print, italics in the chapter, AND THAT’S IT, and then the summary again, slowly. You still won’t get it. 3) Look at all the diagrams, photos, tables, AND THAT’S IT, and then the summary again….you may start to understand a bit. 4) Then you SPEED READ, never stopping your eyes, and reading over. Then read that summary again. During your speed read, use the INSERT system to make marks in the margin of your page. 5) Now you can highlight, pick out the juicy facts you want to pop out in your brain.


That’s sort of unravelling the chapter, actively looking at highlights, and slowly rolling it back up again.


Your retention rate will ZOOM. Speed read? You’ll get better at it. It means not subvocalizing. It means NOT SAYING THE WORD IN YOUR HEAD. Always move forward, if you don’t get it mark the margin. It means reading MORE THAN ONE WORD AT ONCE. Practiced speed readers can read entire chunks, literally chunks of words. Many styles, same principles.


The INSERT system? Interactive Notation to Effective Reading and Thinking. Use a checkmark in the margin to confirm something you already knew. An exclamation mark if a point is controversial! A plus sign if this is new knowledge, something you wanted to know. A minus mark, I usually circle it, if you disagree, or if the knowledge is something that contradicts a fact you thought you knew. The question mark? If you don’t get it! And, don’t forget, write things down in the margin, your own thoughts.


So, you’ve read the chapter. The above techniques will help you understand, and remember.


That’s a standard strategy. There’s learning a strategy, and being strategic. Reading comprehension goes up when you can make links to prior knowledge, make predictions, visualize, and monitor your level of understanding. Can you do that at the same time?


Well, probably some. You can link things up. That’s the check mark in the INSERT system. Can you let your mind float, and imagine, predict, can you see it? How do you assess your level of understanding?


That may require some more active transformation. Summarization clearly helps you. Can you use this opportunity to transform your material? Challenge yourself to put into a different format. Draw a picture! Make a table, or a graph.


Highlighters. Easy to buy. Easy to paint.


Largely useless.


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