Traffic Light Highlighting - Digital Literacy Dover

Monday 19 October 2020

Traffic Light Highlighting


Highlighting texts that we read is a commonplace strategy utilised by many people especially when working with more complex/academic texts that are generally more difficult to understand, and are often being read with a specific focus in mind usually one that will result in some sort of academic reflection in the form of a written report of some kind. Unfortunately the research on this is less than favourable to put it mildly.... specifically that highlighting as a strategy is extremely ineffective despite its popularity...

Improving students’ learning with effective learning techniques: Promising directions from cognitive and educational psychology. (2013)

“Students already are familiar with and spontaneously adopt the technique of highlighting; the problem is that the way the technique is typically implemented is not effective.
Given students’ enthusiasm for highlighting and underlining (or perhaps over-enthusiasm, given that students do not always use the technique correctly), discovering fail-proof ways to ensure that this technique is used effectively might be easier than convincing students to abandon it entirely in favor of other techniques.” p21, Donesky et al (2013) 

This of course begs the question as to exactly what an effective technique for highlighting could look like, fortunately the authors of the study are happy to help (emphasis mine):

“Marked text draws the reader’s attention, but additional processing should be required if the reader has to decide which material is most important. Such decisions require the reader to think about the meaning of the text and how its different pieces relate to one another (i.e., organisational processing; Hunt & Worthen, 2006)
More generally, the quality of the highlighting is likely crucial to whether it helps students to learn, but unfortunately, many studies have not contained any measure of the amount or the appropriateness of students’ highlighting. Those studies that have examined the amount of marked text have found great variability in what students actually mark, with some students marking almost nothing and others marking almost everything.” (Ibid)


So the key here is “discrimination between important and trivial information” and to highlight as little as possible, as it’s the criticality of the selections that facilitate effective engagement with the text. An effective strategy will “improve student retention of knowledge as essential for reaching other instructional objectives; if one does not remember core ideas, facts, or concepts, applying them may prove difficult, if not impossible.” ... “the important interplay between memory for a concept on one hand and the ability to comprehend and apply it on the other.” (Ibid)



When I first encountered this research I was somewhat taken aback as this didn’t jibe with my own experience, anyone who knows me knows that I have a reputation for remembering what I read, and I read a great deal, particularly academic articles, but the reason I remember what I read it because I am an avid notetaker, but those notes are very much structured around a highlighting strategy.  But when I read into the research it is apparent that what I’m doing isn’t what they are criticising... The strategies are use when highlighting very much represent the types of efficacy outlined above, so please allow me to introduce to ... (drum roll please) Traffic Light Highlighting.



Traffic Light Highlighting

As you read, make critical selections of text using either yellow, green, or red highlighter. *

Green for content you strongly agree/resonate with, red for the opposite of that, and yellow for content which is interesting/useful/informative. 


In terms of engagement combining this highlighting with note taking is essential, this is particularly true of text highlighted in green or red.  

Stanford professor Candace Thille has some very helpful advice in this CNBC article,

“Just highlighting something doesn’t commit it better somehow to your memory.”

Instead of mindlessly underlining something you want to learn, Thille suggests finding important information and paraphrasing it in language that makes sense to you.

"If you thought that point was important, try and restate it in your own words," she says. "Try and make sense of out it because you're not really trying to commit it to memory, you're trying to extract meaning out of it."

So where there is green text I am summarising what it is about that text that I find to be so important. But it’s the red text that causes my students the most confusion—they just cannot understand why I would want to focus so closely on information that I don’t agree with; but as I explain to them, that kind of content is arguably the most useful, particularly when you’re expected to demonstrate critical thought about the text. 

For critical thinking it’s important to seek out information that is not in alignment with your current views, this is where the questions lie, where the opportunities for learning are the richest. At the very least it ensures that you’re not just constructing and maintaining your own 'filter bubble'. The red text assists with embracing uncertainty, seeking out the complexity of disparate perspectives.

Depending on the nature of the paper that you’re reading you should find that red highlights should be relatively rare—few and far between. The example I have included below is from a paper that I found to be particularly contentious, but as a general rule I would expect  many papers not have any red text at all and where there is red text, it’s probably only one or two sentences in the entire paper. Notes that accompany the red text will expand on what it is about this point that I find problematic.

Notice the notes.... that's engagement.

Green - Judgement: agreement  endorsement
Yellow - Factual/informative/interesting/noteworthy
Red - Judgement: disagreement/contention


Some of my students have adapted this highlighting strategy for their own purposes, something I enthusiastically encourage. One student in particular uses blue text; they use this to highlight text which they personally find difficult to understand—primarily because of their lack of familiarity with the content. This is an interesting perspective, and one I think still lends itself to the kind of critical engagement that the experts encourages in order for a highlighting strategy to be truly useful. 



Dunlosky J, Rawson KA, Marsh, EJ, Nathan MJ, & Willingham DT. (2013). Improving students’ learning with effective learning techniques: Promising directions from cognitive and educational psychology. Psychological Science in the Public Interest, 14(1), 4-58. 

Hess A. (2017). These 5 hacks can help you learn anything, according to a Stanford professor. CNBC. Retrieved October 19, 2020, from


* I personally prefer to use a digital tool for this as it avoids printing  (especially for the paper I cited to support this post which was in excess of 50 pages), and affords me the range of colours I require, but also allows me to easily clarify the meaning of certain terms which especially with academic papers is quite common. An added bonus is that it’s also very easy to view a synopsis of all the content in the paper that has been highlighted or annotated at a glance, and the search function is particularly powerful when referring back to research that you may not have read recently and need to review.

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