Enhance your study time and improve recall with Color-Highlighting

Since it’s back to school time what better time to talk about using colors to enhance your study time! (Note to teachers: this can help you in preparing study aids as well!)

Why willy nilly color highlighting (including the lack there of) isn’t benefiting you

If you’re like most people, you probably only use one color to highlight, or just whatever pen, pencil, or highlighter you have to hand. While it may seem more efficient — who doesn’t have a yellow highlighter hanging around? — it’s less efficient in processing/memorizing the information and scanning the text to review. It also won’t necessarily trigger the parts of the brain you want triggered when reading and reviewing certain passages.

If all you use is one color to highlight, it can fade into the background and you can miss important points, vocabulary words and definitions, or important do’s or don’ts.

If instead you just willy nilly swap between colors with whatever is on hand, your brain will toss out all those colors as if they were just one because you have no method behind the use of your colors.

So here, I’ll share with you a SIMPLE method of what I like to call Color-Highlighting that has worked for me; it helps in the first pass to parse the information, and it helps in reviewing old texts so I quickly find the information again!

What’s the Benefit of Color-Highlighting?

Having a purpose behind which colors you use in highlighting and when greatly helps your brain parse data: putting it into correct categories and helping you remember and recall that data. If you have a method behind your color scheming then you are on the right track!

But Color-Highlighting is more than that. This isn’t your typical color coding: where you just put like objects in a group by using similar colors. It’s about assigning those like objects, in this case text, to colors that will trigger the right part of the brain so you store it properly as well! It can even calm you down while taking in all that new information, or stimulate the brain to process it!

Psychology of colors in learning

Before implementing a color strategy, it’s important to know how colors affect the brain. I got this image that explains it very well for all your basic colors from a fellow blogger:


The Color-Highlighting Method

You can obviously use the colors in whatever way seems best for you, but based on the above information, this is what really works for me:

  • Yellow: for all miscellaneous highlighting. As it’s stimulating mental activity, and it’s light color making text easier to read, no wonder everyone uses it for all general and miscellaneous highlighting! Continue to do so for all your general highlighting needs. Whatever grabs you in the text is something to highlight! You’ll definitely go through more yellow than any other color. Stock up on yellow!
  • Blue: for vocabulary words (not the definition, just the word). Since blue is calming and is for things that may seem too complicated, it’s the perfect color to use when highlighting new vocabulary words so your brain doesn’t freak out over yet another new word! Keep calm! This also helps your eye instantly pick out those vocabulary words when you need to go back and look them up, and helps your brain store them!
  • Green: for vocabulary definitions (not the word). I like to use green to highlight the definitions as it immediately ties it to the blue highlighted vocab color since it’s an analogous color, but also since some definitions are longer and green is restful to the eye and brain, you can take in the definition in a relaxed manner.
  • Red: only for really important items and warning. Use red for highlighting warnings and you’ll always be able to avoid those don’ts and find them again quickly before doing a task incorrectly. Red stops the eye. So use sparingly.
  • Orange: as an invitation to do something. If there is a fun task the author is inviting you to perform a task — especially if it’s fun! — use orange. I love orange. It’s a great color to have on your desk as well. Not the whole desk! But have a stress relieving toy in that color and it’ll help give your mind a break when studying and reduce any boredom you may be experiencing.
  • Purple: you can really use for anything along side the other colors, including yellow, but I like to use it for quotes, important dates/people, and for highlighting code snippets. For quotes, I highlight things that really stand out to me personally, for myself. I’ve found them in all kinds of books, even the math ones! So it’s nice to be able to pick them out because of their purple color. For my programming books, it’s nice to be able to highlight some important code. That’s again when I use purple.

You can use additional colors: pink, gray, yellow-green, and others, all have good uses too. Just be consistent with how you use them. (See additional hints below.)

Additional Highlighting Tips

Use smooth crayons for highlighting

I prefer to use crayons in my highlighting as they don’t bleed through the page and “highlight” information on the other side, which makes for easier reading. They’re also softer in color than typical highlighters so it’s less of an assault to the eye. AND they don’t rub off nearly as easily as markers (which keeps you again from unintentional additional highlighting). I’m not talking about the box of crayons you had as a kid which come out chunky on the page and are a little too opaque for highlighting though. I like the twistables (affilate links!) or scripture marking crayons work even better as they are smooth crayons that were specifically designed to be used on thin, delicate pages!

Use lines and boxes to “highlight” long passages

If it’s a long passage that you really like, instead of highlighting the entire section and having an assault to your eyes (and also making it difficult if you want/need to use multiple colors to pick out smaller details), you can just use your highlighter to draw a line along side the text or box it. Sometimes I’ll even draw a brace around it and then write a few words in pencil to the side describing why I liked it or summing it all up. You can use this method with any color.

Keep a ball-point pen in black or dark grey or a pencil at hand as well.

Often it helps to write near a passage why you like it or a quick summary of it, and this is most easily done using a regular writing instrument. You can even do this for entire pages. At the top of the page write a short sentence or phrase that sums up the whole thing. You don’t have to do this for every page, but if it’s an important topic, or you want to be able to find the information again quickly when skimming the text, this is a great method. It’s also nice to have the pen/pencil to hand so you can jot down some of your own thoughts next to the text that sparked it. Do this only for thoughts you can write down succinctly. I’ve gained great insight into texts by rereading some of my own thoughts on it! Side note: pencils do rub and can blur over time. Same with gel pens (which can do it nearly instantaneously), but pall point pens, once dry, tend to stay put, so I typically choose that, unless my pages are really thin, or I prefer to be able to erase.

Why black or gray? So you can make general comments without interfering with the highlighting colors you’re already using. If you want to color-highlight what notes you’ve written you can also do that, and it’ll be lots easier to read if it’s in black.

Change color method as necessary per subject and textbook, but be consistent (or as consistent as possible!)

It’s okay to switch your highlighting techniques from text to text. Different subjects will call for different highlighting techniques (like using purple for quotes to code snippets, or highlighting important dates!). Just whatever color highlighting method you decide to use, be consistent throughout! And remember to make a key!

Have a Key

It can help to make yourself a key and keep it in the inner front cover of your text for yourself (and others!) to reference, so you are consistent with your highlighting throughout your text, and so that you can look back on what the different colors are for so you can then look for the color you need in the text. Even with a simple system you may forget what color to use where, but especially if your system is complicated (you’re using more than just the six basic colors), you’ll really want your key so you can be consistent throughout the text (and future texts).

More tips on studying

Of course there’s more to studying than just Color-Highlighting. That’s why I delve into my own study techniques in my next post!

But that’s it for now! Good luck!

Published by Nancy N. Blackburn

🌺Holistic Wellness Mentor & Leader: helping hardworking mamas regain physical, mental, and emotional wellness so they can flourish! 🎮 Game Professor & Scholar, Technical Game Designer

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