Highlighting: A Feel-Good Waste of Time

Highlighting: A Feel-Good Waste of TimeThis week we welcome back guest writer Christen Morgan to talk about why highlighting might not be the best strategy when trying to memorize in law school.

What’s your favorite study strategy? Do you delve deep into using flashcards or do you plaster note tabs and sticky notes by each important point to create a roadmap for your brain? Do you outline diligently throughout the semester or entirely procrastinate then cram it all at the last minute and pray that through some magnetic force the information will ultimately stick? Regardless of your study style, I’m sure that you may have relied on highlighting at some point or another as a way to quickly remember the most important points in your dense case law reading. However, if highlighting is your chosen study technique, I have some bad news for you, “highlighting doesn’t actually help you remember anything.” In fact, research shows that highlighting is simply a waste of time because it fails to embed knowledge into your brain.

Difficult to believe? I felt the same way. As someone who’s borderline obsessed with highlighters, this is a very difficult fact for me to accept. In fact, I had to sit for about twenty minutes and really apply this fact to situations in which I’ve gone on a highlighting bender to determine whether I really committed anything to memory. The first situation that came to mind was a bench brief I reviewed a few weeks ago prior to judging a moot court competition. Strapped for time, I smeared my handy yellow highlighter on every pertinent fact or case law I figured would challenge each competitor. I started this highlighting dance about two days before the competition with the limited time I had, without taking many notes, because I figured that everything I highlighted was magically implanted in my brain. Fast forward two days later to the competition: I pulled out my thoroughly highlighted bench brief and everything was a blur! I actually laughed audibly at how yellow each page was and at how little I remembered even when reviewing the highlighted sections. I therefore began to pore over each section and took notes to actually begin committing anything to memory. As much as I hate to agree, this personal frenzy supports the argument that highlighting doesn’t help with memory.

Why doesn’t Highlighting Help you to Remember Anything?

Highlighting doesn’t help you to remember anything because you pay very little attention to the notes you highlight and as a result your brain fails to remember this information. There are four phases of learning and memory: attention, encoding, storage and retrieval. Before your brain can remember a fact, you must pay attention to this fact and then your brain can encode, store and retrieve this information. Now think about it, when you read through case law armed with your handy highlighter are you actually paying attention to any of the facts you highlight or are you more focused on highlighting any point that seems important with the intent of locating this point quickly to regurgitate to your professor during a cold call? Something tells me that your intent is likely the latter and, as a result, you begin mindlessly highlighting. Such mindless highlighting negates the possibility of learning through “desirable difficulty,” a principle that argues that when learning feels difficult, your brain memorizes material better. Highlighting is simply an easy feel-good technique. Your brain goes through no arduous effort to apply this technique and, as a result, your brain absorbs no information.

What are Some Alternative Study Techniques that Help with Memory?

Now that we’ve uncovered the truth about highlighting, I will say do not despair! There are alternative study techniques that do require more effort but are absolutely more effective in the long run. In law school, you are tasked with remembering copious amounts of extremely difficult information. Instead of reading this information, highlighting it and moving on, how about first reading this information with the intent of understanding it and then pulling this information from memory and transferring it to flashcards or to an outline? Research shows that when you pull an idea from your memory, “you’re strengthening the neural pathways associated with it.” This process makes it easier for information to embed within your brain. So, I recommend these study techniques:

  1. After reading through different topic areas, create flashcards from your memory to lock the information down.
  2. Create a master outline of your notes throughout the semester. You can add to this outline incrementally after each class. Instead of simply highlighting what you’ve learned, add this information to your outline.
  3. When reviewing cases for class, create small case briefs for each case. Prior to reading each case, review a summary to have a general understanding before diving in and, as you dive in, create a short case brief that highlights the main points that a professor will likely cold call you on. This technique will do wonders with actually helping you to commit this information to memory and will also making you more prepared for a cold call.
So, should you Dump all your Highlighters?

Absolutely not! Although highlighting does very little to support your memory, this technique can actually be a helpful supplement to studying if used correctly. Highlighting can be far more effective if you use very little highlighting on study materials, instead of jumping in and highlighting everything that sounds good. Therefore, before pulling out your handy highlighter, read the text first. This first step is crucial in deciphering what is actually important. If you know what is important, this can guide you in highlighting selective information from the text instead of highlighting the whole page. Now remember that highlighting anything at all is unnecessary, but if you’re a highlighting fanatic like me, this is a great way to highlight with purpose.


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About Christen Morgan

Christen Morgan graduated magna cum laude from the University of Tampa where she received her B.S. in Criminology. She earned her J.D. from Emory Law School where she competed and served as an executive board member for the Emory Law Moot Court Society. Christen also served as a student representative for LexisNexis and also as a mentor for several 1L students offering them advice and a variety of resources to help them through their law school journey.

Christen previously practiced as a Foreclosure Attorney for a Real Estate law firm but has since then transitioned into a Real Estate Specialist role at a wireless infrastructure company.

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