One of the most popular study tools of the last 30 years must be the highlighter pen. Simply reading a text is not serious enough. As soon as you start marking key phrases and paragraphs in neon yellow you show the world, and more importantly yourself, that now you're really studying. I've highlighted many texts in my time and there is a certain feel-good factor in having concrete evidence that I have done more than just read the text. However I wonder if this is an example of a practice that gives an illusion of learning but does not in fact really help at all.
A new article by a group of American researchers, Improving Students’ Learning With Effective Learning Techniques (Association for Psychological Science), examines a number of popular learning techniques and tries to evaluate their effectiveness. Highlighting, rereading and summarizing are all rated as having "low utility" despite being probably the most popular.
"On the basis of the available evidence, we rate highlighting and underlining as having low utility. In most situations that have been examined and with most participants, highlighting does little to boost performance. It may help when students have the knowledge needed to highlight more effectively, or when texts are difficult, but it may actually hurt performance on higher-level tasks that require inference making. Future research should be aimed at teaching students how to highlight effectively, given that students are likely to continue to use this popular technique despite its relative ineffectiveness."
The problem with highlighting is that few people have any real technique to follow. We simply underline things that seem useful at first glance rather than really thinking about what the key points might be. The profusion of neon in your textbook may look as if you've been studying hard but it does very little to help learning. It puts the focus on words and phrases rather then concepts and connections. The authors don't completely dismiss highlighting but stress that it requires more thought and practice to be of much real use.
What techniques work best then? According to the study, techniques such as practice testing (without grading) and distributed practice (spreading revision out over a longer period) gave the best results in terms of long term effect. The study techniques examined in this study however are those most used for self-study and more complex learning techniques through collaboration, reflective writing, peer review and problem-solving are not included.
What is interesting here is that we often rely on techniques that simply do not contribute to learning but are easy to use and give us the illusion of learning.
Read more in an article in Time Ideas, Highlighting Is a Waste of Time: The Best and Worst Learning Techniques.