As a humanities teacher who regularly checks and grades my students’ texts based on how well they have marked them up, I was recently dismayed to read an article by Anna Murphy which appeared in Time Magazine seeming to denigrate the whole process of marking up a text.

 Ms. Murphy cited a comprehensive report released by the Association for Psychological Science, the authors, led by Kent State University professor John Dunlosky which argued that:

Highlighting and underlining led the authors’ list of ineffective learning strategies. Although they are common practices, studies show they offer no benefit beyond simply reading the text….Nearly as bad is the practice of rereading, a common exercise that is much less effective than some of the better techniques you can use. …Highlighting, underlining, rereading and summarizing were all rated by the authors as being of “low utility.”

I am not sure how they were testing the “utility” of this skill, but it seems to me that they missed the proverbial boat. This article suggests that the study merely examined the relationship of certain reading skills including highlighting to test performance, and I would concur that as a study aid on its own highlighting/marking a text doesn’t fully prepare students for tests absent other study skills.

But marking up a text is far more than a mere study skill; it is an integral habit of lifelong learners. It is a way to engage with a text and learn to think critically. Furthermore, it is a means by which each student can keep track of his/her own thoughts and educational development. These markings provide a snapshot of what a student thought was important at a specific moment.

I think perhaps that what the study examined were students who merely highlighted and weren’t in fact engaging actively with the text. These students seem to have been using their highlighting merely to “draw attention to individual facts,” instead of using the margins to make connections both among different ideas and different texts. In short, it seems that perhaps the study examined students who really didn’t know how to mark up a text, but instead of critiquing the methodology they condemned the method itself.

Further Reading:

All Books are Coloring Books

How to Mark a Book


  1. I agree with you. The reading page is an essential writing space for an active reader. I am teaching Developmental Reading and Writing in a junior college, and we stress the importance of active reading strategy by using these: annotation, highlighting, outlining, idea mapping and more. I cannot get sources now, but Coleridge, Blake, and Twain used the reading page for their reading process. Twain’s marginalia is now legendary. There are great websites on marginalia and other things found in books. Google Harvard and Marginalia, and the first or second result is an interesting collection.

    I know that a few examples cannot make the case for”high utility” for millions of modern students, yet I have to read this study, now. From your reading of it and the abstract from the site, and the Times article, there is something big missing. It has to be. Decades and decades and decades of active readers cannot be wrong.

    • Thank you so much! You are the first commenter on my blog. I completely agree with you. I love marginalia- mine and others. Nothing like reading a book and seeing the notes you took years ago. Kids today will miss a lot by not even having paper copies of books.

  2. Pingback: Textbooks: The Value of Paper in an Increasingly Digital World | What Teachers Make

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