The Study Dude—How I Improved My Highlighting in Five Easy Steps

The Study Dude—How I Improved My Highlighting in Five Easy Steps

At university, I highlighted like a wild dog—entire pages soaked in yellow.  I’d take my highlighted points, jot them down on cue cards, and memorize them all.  Study time was gruelling.

Weirder still, I couldn’t figure out how other students got A’s taking two more classes than me each semester.  But I showed them: After one day learning a step-by-step secret to highlighting, my study skills sped up and my retention skyrocketed.  Now, I hope to share the secret with you in five easy steps and two simple rules.  After all, every keener wants an easy edge.

Easy step #1: Highlight one sentence per paragraph.  According to The Open University, “A good rule of thumb is to underline or highlight one sentence per paragraph.  Paragraphs usually focus on one key point, and while they might include an illustrative example which may be useful, it is the main point that you need to identify first and foremost” (38%).

Good writers aim for one key idea per paragraph.  Hopefully, that’s who wrote your textbook.  So, give the main idea in each paragraph a yellow glow.

Once, a prof assigned a textbook densely written to a first-year class I TA’d.  The only sentences in the book worth highlighting were the ones that made sense on the first go.  In hindsight, the book was poorly written: too many stuffy words that didn’t add meaning.  If you find yourself in this situation, simply highlight the clear key points and try to reword the rest in plain English.  Highlighting key ideas keeps you on track.

Easy step #2: Jot a note in the margin beside your highlighted text.  The Open University says, “Some people find it more useful, then, to add in a short note of the example in the margin next to the highlighted sentence” (38%).

I love taking notes in the margins of books.  If you do this, you’ll be thankful come exam or essay writing time.

As an example, I bought a book on advertising slogans.  I jotted down any useful tips in the margin.  Later, when I had a job assignment to create ads, I opened the tome to find all the useful stuff waiting for me in the margins.  No need for me to reread the entire book.

Also jot down any questions you have in the margins.  Perhaps use a red pen for any questions so you can skip over them when time-crunched.  Otherwise, you’ve always got time for margin notes.

Easy step #3: Think about what you read (and take notes).  The Open University advises, The next stage … is to begin to take the ideas into your thoughts, make your own sense of them, and begin to ‘talk to’ what you are reading: check you understand the main points; see how they relate to your own experience; think up other examples that may illustrate them; see how they stand up to questioning; and sometimes query them or begin to put forward criticisms.  This is about reading and thinking” (44%).

To do all this, I suggest you type up the highlighted sentence and margin notes (from step #1 and #2).  Then type up your own examples, comments, questions, and criticisms.  Include a full reference to the textbook and page number.  You’ll reinforce the material, which means—yes!—better grades.  Studies go better with note-taking.

Easy step #4: Organize your notes (and add comments and questions).  The Open University says, “Another way of processing ideas is to reorganize notes around a set of questions or thematic headings.  This is particularly useful for those notes that you will be drawing upon for planning and writing assignments” (46%).

This is the best idea for essay-writing ever.  I like to write down a one- to two-word theme beside every point I highlight in articles.  That way, when it comes to writing papers, I can easily organize the themes into three key ideas (which then form the basis of a thesis statement).

A similar system is to put all your highlighted points on cue cards (along with citations).  In one sitting, write a one- or two-word theme on the back of each cue card.  The shorter the themes, the better.  Then simply organize your cue cards into piles—a pile for each theme.  Your papers will write themselves, and your grades will go up.  So, fill up your study-tank with themes.

Easy step #5: Reread your notes (and add more comments and questions).  According to The Open University, “The technique of re-reading completed notes and supplementing them with comments and queries is a useful way of processing ideas” (46%).

Rereading your notes is great.  Memorizing them is better, but, again, if you bulk up your notes with comments and queries, use a different color pen or circle them.  That way, you can skip over the comments and questions come exam time.

But check out this other system: one author said to keep condensing your notes in stages.  His aim was to tighten the notes so that they’d be easier to study from.  I never tried his system, but if I did, I’d keep all past revisions as a hedge.

Which system should you choose?  Try them both.  See which one gets you the best grades with the least strain.

Easy step #6 (optional): Discuss what you learned using a blog, YouTube channel, forum, friend, or Meetup Group.  The Open University recommends, “Look for opportunities to discuss key ideas with someone else – either a fellow student or someone outside of the …  University who is interested in contemporary social science debates.  This can provide a helpful stimulus to internalizing them” (57%).

This is the fun part.  Go wild discussing with others what you learn.  I watch a fine art student’s YouTube clips on writing, and I love them.  If you share what you learn, you’ll do others a favor while bettering your grasp of the material.

And if you share online, who knows, with enough followers, you could monetize your study notes.  Learn the spirit of earning money from your studies.

Now for two simple rules to streamline your studies:

Simple rule #1: Rely on shorthand.  “One way of both cutting down the time spent making notes and keeping them to an appropriate length is to make use of symbols, shorthand and abbreviations” (41%).

By using math symbols like “+” for “and” or “-” for “less,” you can speed up note-taking.  “B/C” is often used for “because,” and “W/O” is often used for “without.”  You could make up your own shorthand.  Stick to your shorthand system, and you’ll take notes in a flash.

Simple rule #2: Use your own words.  “It is not until you start to make your own notes, in your own words … that you can really check that you understand ideas enough to work with and use them, particularly in preparation for assignments and exams” (41%).

Use this simple five-step system to master your studies.  When your friends ask, “Were you born a genius?” just don’t let on, “It’s my highlighter.”


Open Learn: Free Learning from The Open University.  (2016).  .  Reading and note taking – preparation for study.  The Open University.  E-book excerpt.

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