Studying, Highlighter Pens, Defacing Books and Learning

Scribbling on Books

Picture: Highlighting Books is NOT an active learning strategy

Highlighting books is NOT an active learning strategy

One of my pet hates is seeing books covered in fluorescent highlighter pen. On one occasion I lent a student a pristine, personal copy of a book that was in high demand in the library. My reward? It came back defaced in highlighter pen!  I was not pleased and the student didn’t seem to see it as a problem. I recently found out that one of my favourite writers, Oscar Wilde, would routinely scribble in the margins of his personal books. For some people it’s part of an active learning process. Hopefully, most would agree that it’s unacceptable to daub library books and other people’s books with your own personal thoughts (and ‘pretty’ colours). However, is the practice of daubing a book with highlighter pen a good learning technique?

Annotating Books: A Good Learning Technique?

As much as I disapprove of both, there is a fundamental difference in terms of learning between writing notes on books and daubing fluorescent highlighter pen on books. The Wildean approach is all about engaging with the material at a deeper level. Highlighting bits of a book is surface response ‘Ooh that looks as if it might be interesting’. Recognizing that something might be useful is at much shallower level than adding your own thoughts about the material.

Deep versus Shallow Learning

Students often engage in shallow learning techniques such as repeatedly (but passively) reading through notes (and using highlighter pens). Another favourite is recording lectures. There’s also photocopying. All of them require some form of action and some a great deal of effort. The problem is that they create the illusion of learning rather than actually learning. It’s important to engage with the material on a deeper level. Reader through notes only aids recognition not recall. You recognize the material when you see it which is not much use in an exam. You need to be able to recall it, spontaneously. Highlight falls into the same category, for the reasons described above. Recording lectures allows you to put in less effort at processing the information during the lecture. Often people don’t actually listen to their recordings or if they do, it’s only passively. Unless you have a sensory impairment you would be much better off paying attention in lectures and focus on trying to get the gist of the material. It’s more helpful to write down questions that occur during the lectures. These questions will help to guide and shape your reading after the lecture. The lecture is the starting point of your learning, not the be-all-and-end-all!

Students seem to have an almost passionate affair with the photocopier and copy much more material than copyright laws allow and much more than they can usually read. There’s no point in copying material if you are not going to read it. The knowledge will not be transmitted by a form of osmosis! It’s probably a much better strategy to spend time in the library, read the passage and make your own notes, not on the book, in your note pad! Of course some universities wantonly profiteer from photocopying and arguably turn a blind eye to breaches of copyright law (despite the notices). Surely you have noticed how much more expensive it is to photocopy on campus than at a local shop? You are just topping up your fees and you’re not necessarily learning. Owning a pile of paper is not the same as knowledge.

A Better Strategy for Learning

If you spend time writing stuff in your notepad you already engage more cognitive processes. If you read a passage in a book don’t just copy it out. Pause, think about it and write it down in your own words. The idea is that you condense the material rather than faithfully reproduce it.

If you photocopy material then go though it and make your own notes in the margins. Add some of your own thoughts. Make connections to other areas of knowledge. Write down some questions and then research them.

If you record your lectures (and assuming you have permission from lecturers to make recordings) then review the material afterwards. Make a written summary of the recording. You don’t need a word by word account. Personally, I wouldn’t bother recording on a routine basis. It encourages laziness. Better to engage fully at the time.

Being an Active Learning and Building Confidence

Active learning is much more likely to lead to understanding than is the passive, daub-on-it-record-it-photocopy-it approach. Passive learning is also very boring.  Just putting in time is not studying. Just being there is not enough! You have to participate more fully in the learning experience. The extra effort in actively engaging with learning will save you time in the end and help you to achieve better grades. Active learning is also more likely to build confidence in your abilities as you understand what you are learning and are able to recall it more readily and make connections.

So please stop daubing over your books and other people’s books. If you want to colour something in, then buy a colouring book.

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