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Study Tips: How to Highlight Effectively

Study Tips: How to Highlight Effectively

Study Tips: How to Highlight Effectively

Highlighting is a favorite study method of students everywhere. It’s accessible and satisfying—what’s better than using your favorite colors to help you remember important points? However, not knowing how to highlight can turn this useful tip into a distraction. In this guide, we’ll show you some ideas on how to get more out of highlighting. Plus, we’ll share our picks for the best highlighter pens for studying! Watch the video below to see the tips in action.

Know What You’re Highlighting
Haphazard highlighting can result in useless notes, wasted ink, and lost time. Instead of highlighting the text as it comes, try a goal-oriented approach to your material.2,3 Remind yourself of these questions as you survey your text and prepare to highlight:

  • What is the text about?
  • What do you want to gain from highlighting it?
  • What do you need to know to reach your goal?

By asking yourself these questions, you’ll be able to focus on the significant portions of the text without getting distracted.

When you’re ready to highlight, make sure you’ve read the text and have a firm idea of what the paragraph is about. Also check that what you’ve highlighted makes sense in isolation. It’ll save you the extra work of re-reading when you go back to it.

Create a System
There’s often more kinds of information worth paying attention to than a yellow highlighter can handle on its own. Try devising a system to help you efficiently navigate information. You can identify different types of content or topics to pay attention to. Color-coding and creating keys are a great way to let your system take form.
Choose Colors Carefully
Highlighting key with few/limited colors
Make a key with a concise selection of distinct colors.
Before you start, think about what colors and how many of them you should choose. Here are three good rules to stick by when selecting colors:

  • Limit your color count. Using too many colors can get overwhelming. Pick three to five different colors and stick with them.
  • Pick readable colors. Strike a balance between conspicuous and mild. Pastel highlighters are great candidates: they are visible enough to pick out without being too harsh on the eyes. You can check out our Best Pastel Highlighters guide for recommendations.
  • Pick dissimilar colors. You want to be able to tell the different types of information apart!
Highlight in Different Ways
Highlighting and underlining with the Kokuyo Beetle 3way
You can highlight, underline, and double line with the Kokuyo Beetle Tip 3Way Highlighters.
You can cut down on the number of colors by highlighting in different ways with the same color. For example, you can underline the main point, highlight key terms, or draw a box around important formulas. Remember to keep track of what each style means in your key.

Double-sided highlighters are especially handy for diversifying your highlighting, although you can draw lines with the pointed ends of chisel tips too. The Kokuyo Beetle 3way Highlighters deserve a special mention for their unique tip design that lets you easily draw double lines as well.

Highlight in Moderation
Haphazard, excessive highlighting of text
A page with inconsistent and excessive highlighting.
No matter how you’ve set your system up, remember to enforce it. Consistency is crucial to a system’s success. If you use red to indicate the main point of a text, don’t use it to highlight a term’s definition.

As you highlight your text, do so in moderation. A common problem is over-highlighting, when virtually everything is marked as important. If every sentence on the page stands out, then nothing will be distinct enough to remember.

Research suggests that the quality of your highlighting is more important than how much you highlight.1,2 You can try setting limits—for example, only one sentence per paragraph. Having a restriction may make highlighting more effective by forcing you to prioritize information.1
Annotation in margin next to highlighting
Annotations can help remind you of other information related to your highlighted text.
You can also enrich your highlighting with annotations. They can remind you of things that aren’t immediately obvious from the text. Key terms, definitions, connections, and questions for further research are all examples of things you can jot down in the margins.
Study Actively
Active studying with a practice test
Practice tests are a great way to study effectively.
Highlighting can be a good way to keep track of your material, but it shouldn’t be the only way you study. Make sure you stay on top of everything you learn by critically engaging with and practicing what you’re learning. Some of the most effective learning strategies include practice tests and distributed practice, which is when you study in short sessions over a long period of time.1
Highlighter Recommendations
We’ve curated a list of highlighters with handy features that complement the tips in this guide. For more recommendations by use, check out our Best Highlighter Pens and Best Pastel Highlighters guides.
Soft yellow and yellow Pilot FriXion Light Highlighters
Soft yellow (left) and yellow (right) Pilot FriXion Light Erasable Highlighters.
Pilot FriXion Light Erasable Highlighters regular and soft colors
Pilot FriXion Light Erasble Highlighters writing sample with regular and soft colors.

The FriXion lineup is a leader in erasable pens, including highlighters. You can use them to refine your highlighting when you go back to prune unnecessary bits of information. They’re also great for cleaning up areas where you accidentally caught the first word of an irrelevant sentence.

Tombow Kei Coat Double-Sided Highlighter colors
Tombow Kei Coat Double-Sided Highlighter writing sample.

The Tombow Kei Coats have especially fine tips among highlighters. They’re particularly handy for annotating in corresponding colors or underlining narrow-spaced text. The tips are enforced with plastic so they stay crisp in the face of heavy pen pressure or vigorous use. You can choose from a fair selection of mild colors with just the right amount of vibrance.

Kokuyo Beetle Tip 3way Highlighter colors
Kokuyo Beetle Tip 3way Highlighter writing sample.

Kokuyo’s Beetle Tip 3way Highlighters are a great choice for people who want to underline with their highlighters. The unique tip design lets you easily highlight, underline, and draw double lines. The smaller angles of the chisel tips allow the pens to lie more comfortably against flat surfaces, letting you produce neat lines without holding the pen stiffly upright.

Stabilo Boss Original Pastel Highlighters colors
Stabilo Boss Original Pastel Highlighter writing sample.

The wide-tipped Stabilo Boss Original Pastel Highlighters come in a pleasing selection of gentle colors. They’re our pick for those who want to have both neat handwritten notes and pastel ink: they don’t smear ballpoint or pencil and slightly smudge gel and fountain pen ink. You also don’t have to worry about them rolling around thanks to their flat bodies.

Zebra Justfit Mojini Line Highlighter colors
Zebra Justfit Mojini Line Highlighter writing sample.

If your biggest gripe with highlighters is the smearing, we recommend the Zebra Justfit Mojini Line Highlighters. Whether you’re highlighting written notes or inkjet printed paper, they’re specially formulated to be smear-resistant. The tips are also flexible so that lines come out neatly even if you highlight at an angle.

Mild yellow Zebra Mildliner Double-Sided Highlighter
A mild yellow Zebra Mildliner.
Zebra Mildliner Double-Sided Highlighter colors
Zebra Mildliner writing sample.

For those who place the utmost importance on color choice, consider the double-sided Zebra Mildliners. They’re popular for their broad color selection, boasting an incredible 25 soft and unique shades. Mildliners are known for their tendency to smear, so we recommend smear-resistant pens such as the Zebra Sarasa Mark On if you plan on highlighting written notes with them.

Yellow and golden yellow Uni Propus Window Highlighters; yellow Uni Propus Window Q-Dry Highlighter
A yellow Uni Propus Window Q-Dry Highlighter (left) along with golden yellow (middle) and yellow (right) regular Uni Propus Window Highlighters.
Uni Propus Window Q-Dry Highlighter colors
Uni Propus Window Q-Dry Highlighter writing sample. See the selection of regular Uni Propus Window Highlighter colors here.

Like their name suggests, Uni Propus Window Highlighters all feature a nifty window built into the tip that lets you see what you’re highlighting. We especially recommend the ultra fast drying Q-Dry highlighters if you intend to highlight the slick pages of a textbook. All Uni Propus pens are double sided and the regular highlighters come in a variety of colors, including five pleasing pastel shades.

Bonus Gel Pen Pick: Zebra Mark On Gel Pens
Black 0.5mm Zebra Mark On Gel Pen
A black Zebra Mark On Gel Pen in 0.5mm.
Zebra Mark On Gel Pen colors and tip sizes
Zebra Mark On writing sample.

Though clearly not a highlighter, the Zebra Mark On deserves a mention for its unparalleled ability to resist smearing. It can even stand up to the popular Zebra Mildliners! If you highlight a lot of written notes, consider picking one up.

How We Approach Research and Testing

Our writers draw on their personal expertise, consult our in-house subject matter experts, and do extensive research to make our guides as accurate and comprehensive as possible. We then test every finding that makes it through the research stage. Only the techniques and tools whose performance we personally confirm make it into our guides as recommendations.