Exam season is well under way, and the majority of us are either glued to a desk, taking over the living room and dining room table, or trekking to and from the library, without seeing so much as a glimmer of daylight! Whatever we have claimed as our revision space, we can almost guarantee that there will be that one piece of equipment that we can never be without: the humble highlighter.

It’s so tempting to reach for that print out of lecture slide notes and your favourite highlighter pen to start adding colour to your grayscale, dull looking notes. From those year 6 SATs, through GCSEs and A Levels, we’ve been led to believe that highlighter pens are most definitely the magical answer to getting that long list of facts to cement themselves in your brain.

But does it really work?

When you’re trying to absorb all that information, your brain looks for familiar pieces of information that it can make connections between- this is how we learn. According to articles by ‘Study Right’, highlighters can be great for this but only if used properly, and it is very easy to fall into the trap and isolate the ‘wrong’ pieces of information by highlighting them. It is equally easy to end up highlighting reams and reams of pages from textbooks which merges all the information together. No surprise, both of these techniques are haphazard and actually hindering the learning process.

Now, it is not to be said that highlighting is always a bad idea, it can be a really good way to connect important ideas, make them look appealing to your brain, and interesting to look at for hours on end, but highlighting is a passive process. If this works for you, then carry on and fill that page with colour, but if it isn’t seeming to help, it might be helpful to know that using passive techniques are not very effective methods when trying to understand concepts, ideas, and a list of complicated words. Highlighting a textbook was even described as one of the least effective study techniques by a study by John Dunlosky et al, ‘Improving Students’ Learning with Effective Learning Techniques’. So, the trick is to make your study sessions more involved.

Our top techniques to try out are:
• Make your own notes- this active process will get your brain taking more information in!
• Test yourself- set timers and after an hour, see what you have learnt. Go over the things you haven’t and see that progress soar!
• Teach someone else- parents, grandparents and friends on different courses are all great options, as they will need a full explanation and really test your knowledge. They can also help by giving you hints as you go along, and maybe that will be the reminder you remember in the middle of your exam?
• And finally, if you can’t abandon those highlighter pens, use them on your own notes to link ideas!

Follow our top tips and you’ll be well on your way to a successful exam season. Good luck!