Does stress help you study better?

If we were to take a student’s notes, we would most likely find books, articles and other documents highlighted in all kinds of fluorescent colors: yellow, green, orange, pink, blue … The range of colors that we can find in store, colors that are in great demand in the world of education.

Enhancement is one of the most widely used techniques among the student body, especially in high school, high school and university. The underlying premise is that highlighting key ideas stands out and therefore makes it easier to both review and remember those ideas.

But really Does stress help you study better? Then, we will see if this strategy of study really serves or not to better regulate the agenda.

    Is stress an effective measure to study better?

    It does not fail. If we go to the nearest library and go through it, we will see all kinds of students with their notes on the table, books and other documents which, in addition to having occasional annotations, will also have a wide range of colors. There are cute students who do it in pastel colors, others prefer the more striking fluorescent classics and some prefer to go simple and underline with pencil or pen. In all cases, students, almost instinctively, must underline their notes.

    Underlining is one of the most popular techniques among students of all educational levels, Mainly in secondary (ESO), pre-university (baccalaureate) and university. They don’t do this because, of course: the point is to make it easier to learn and remember the content, highlighting key ideas and making them easier to use when reviewing without having to read the entire page from the top. below.

    Because of its popularity, there is a lot of research in the educational sciences that has attempted to find out whether a real focus makes studying better. This strategy has been studied both in a laboratory context, controlling all possible variables, and in real classroom situations, that is to say in the field. Both types of research agreed to compare underlining with other strategies also pursued by students and reading without underlining.

    Scientific Research

    Among the many studies that have focused on studying the effectiveness of underlining as a study technique, we have a classic, carried out in 1974 by Robert L. Fowler and Anne S. Barker. In short, his study consisted of giving a 10-page text to his students, who were divided into three groups each with one of the following 3 conditions:

    • Read without underlining
    • read the underline
    • Read the text already underlined

    The students read the text and did as the researchers told them. Those in condition 1 were simply reading, without underlining. Participants in 2 had to read the text underlining it on their own and, as expected, each one underlined what they thought was relevant, which could vary from person to person. Those of the 3 received a text which already presented the key ideas underlined.

    The next session of the experiment was conducted a week later and consisted of performing the test in which they were asked for the content that was explained in the 10 page document. Before the exam, students had the opportunity to review about 10 minutes using the same document they had used the previous time, i.e. those in 1 were given the same document without underlining it, those of 2 received the one they themselves had colored and those of the 3rd received the document with the ideas underlined.

    When comparing the results of the test that the students answered for the three conditions, the researchers did not find any statistically significant differences between these conditions. Surprising as it may sound, other research related to or inspired by this one has had similar results, implying that underlining does not work.

      Is it really unnecessary?

      However, to assume that the first constraints have no advantage for the study is a hasty and superficial interpretation. Although somewhat subtle, the fact that you actively underlined or received a document that was already underlined it was linked to better performance compared to just reading the text, which suggests that something is definitely worth highlighting..

      When we see a word underlined in a different color on a black and white page, it is inevitable to look at it. This word stands out from the others because it does not have the same visual characteristics, that is to say perceptual, as the rest of the text which is not colored. This word will have caught our attention and although we have not made the effort, we will remember it more easily than the rest of the text.

      It’s the Von Restorff or the insulation effect, And occurs when information protrudes semantically or sensorially. If exceeded, it is more likely to be remembered compared to the rest of the information which was more consistent in these two respects. For example, reading the following two word lists and waiting 5 minutes, which words are more likely to be forgotten?

      • List 1: apple, pear, banana, kiwi, plum, orangutan, watermelon, melon, orange, mango
      • Listing 2: car, bus, plane, motorcycle, bicycle, boat, yacht, train, metro, railway

      Taking these two examples, we can see that the isolation effect occurred by remembering the word “orangutan” in List 1, which stands semantically, and the word “motorcycle”, which stands out perceptually. . The first does this because unlike the rest of the list, it is not a fruit, but an animal, and the second stands out with its bold and underlined character.

      In view of this, what would happen to List 2 which would be presented as follows? If this was the first time they had taught us which words do we think would be most likely to be remembered ?:

      List 2: car, bus, plane, motorcycle, bicycle, boat, yacht, train, metro, railway

      Here, all words are underlined and in bold, and they all refer to means of transport. None of them stand out because they all have the same characteristics. In principle, all of them will involve the same cognitive effort when attempting to memorize and memorize, since none alone has a particularly striking appearance.

      This is what happens when certain notes are underlined. When specific words in text are underlined, it is more likely that, upon reviewing, we will notice them quickly because they grab attention to be visually different from the rest of the page. As they caught our attention, we remember them better. However, if most or all of the page is underlined, what will attract the most attention in visual terms will be the target, Which may well be the margins or a vague word that we have not colored. This would not produce the Von Restorff effect and therefore the underline would not have been of much use to us.

      If it is highlighted well i.e. only what ideas and keywords are, the study process is significantly streamlined. During the review, key ideas will be used and a student strategy that has proven to be one of the most effective will be put into practice: evocation. By forcing themselves to remember the content, students practice something they will be required to do on exam day, which is nothing more than explaining on the piece of paper what they are asked to do. .

      If they have the key ideas given in the book, when they put the evocation into practice, if they don’t remember the content, they’ll just have to go to the what they don’t remember page, read the underline and try to bring up again, instead of having to read the whole page and wasting time. Emphasizing key ideas appropriately and trying to remember them aloud highlights the value of studying better, As this will facilitate their memorization and subsequent evocation.

      How does underlining help us?

      In view of the above, it is clear that underline, although not as powerful that an evocation technique, if done well, can help us study. For underlining to be useful to us, it must be done well, that is, highlight key ideas and avoid making the most classic mistake that all students have made more than once: paint the whole page with the underline. It’s not that the more stressed we learn, the less things will grab our attention and the harder it will be to come up with key ideas.

      Then let’s see some tips to highlight, To make this strategy really beneficial in our study and without abusing the markers.

      1. Take a first reading

      The first thing many students do just to open the book is arm themselves with their underline, start reading the syllabus, and underline on the fly. This is the most common mistake among students and the one that turns stressing into a complete waste of time.

      In order to be able to highlight key ideas, you must first know what they are., And we may not find out on first reading. Although we go paragraph by paragraph, it is useless to us if we do not have a general idea of ​​what the subject is. Since we don’t know and haven’t read all of the content, our things to consider filter is very broad, dropping any idea that we don’t know is pretty much it.

      It is therefore very important to do a first reading without underlining. You have to take your time and read the whole subject in depth, without painting the pages. As we read, we will relate some ideas to others, establishing which are the most important and which are simpler or which we already knew before.

      2. Do active reading

      Although some say it is enough to take a first read as a contact, yes it is important to do a second reading. In this one the subject will ring a little more to us, since of something we will remember from the first reading. Taking active reading with certain ideas internalized can allow us to better determine which ideas are important, as well as more easily relate to each other.

      It is during this second reading that it is particularly advisable to pay attention to the details that, perhaps, during the first one we skipped or we did not pay much attention to being more of a visual type. that writes. Now is a good time to try to understand pictures, graphics, maps, figures or anything unwritten that gives meaning to the text.

      3. Identify relevant information

      After the first two readings have been completed it is time to identify the essential information that we learn from the exam, which is relevant and on which we will focus. This is definitely the time to think more about the exam, as we are making an active cognitive effort to discern the importance of the straw.

      4. Underline

      Now is the time to paint the book. We highlight the most important information and concepts once you’ve identified them, such as topic titles, concepts, definitions, dates, and other topic content. It is very important not to underline more than 3 words in a row or more than 5 in the same paragraph, as we run the risk of reversing the Von Restorff effect as we mentioned before.

      What we can do is combine the underline formats. For example, we can underline the name of an idea (for example, Spanish Romanticism) and underline its entire definition, mark it with a checkmark, or indicate it with an arrow. As long as most of the page is not colored and the key ideas stand out visually, we’ll do a good underline.

      Finally, he comments on the subject of colors. It is a very good idea to use several different colors, especially more than 4, as this allows us to identify different types of key content using our own color code (e.g. yellow = key idea, blue = author, green = important date, pink = category …) It is better to use pastel shades rather than fluorescent, especially if we are going to spend many hours studying because these second colors are less comfortable for our eyesight.


      While scientific evidence has shown that there are no statistically significant differences between underlining and simply reading a text, it must be said that there are some nuances to this. It is not the same to underline without knowing what is being emphasized as to do it after reading, identifying, selecting and underlining key ideas. When reviewing, if only the key ideas have been marked, the view will go to what is important, paying more attention and learning more easily.

      As long as it’s done the right way, underlining is a useful technique. Combined with evocation, that is to say trying to remember what we have learned, visually indicating what is important allows us to study better because in case we do not have something clear it will suffice to look for it in the book, to reread the important content and try again to see if we are left in memory.

      Bibliographical references:

      • Bell, KE and Limber, JE (2009). Ability to read and mark textbooks and course performance. Literacy Research and Education, 49, 56-67.
      • Credé, M. and Kuncel, NR (2008). Studying habits, skills and attitudes: the third pillar that supports the academic performance of colleges. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 3 (6), 425-453.
      • Dunlosky, J., Rawson, KA, Marsh, EJ, Nathan, MJ & Willingham, DT (2013). Improving student learning with effective learning techniques: promising directions from cognitive and pedagogical psychology. Psychological Sciences of Public Interest, 14 (1), 4-58.
      • Fowler, RL and Barker, AS (1974). Effectiveness of highlighting for text retention. Journal of Applied Psychology, 59 (3), 358.
      • Nist, S. and Hogrebe, M. (1987). The role of underlining and noting in memory textual information. Reading and Research, 27, 13-25.
      • Ruiz-Martin, H. (2020) How do we learn? A scientific approach to learning and teaching. Spain, Graó.
      • Ruiz-Martin, H. (2020) Learning to Learn: Improve Your Ability to Learn by Uncovering How Your Brain Learns. Spain, Random House.
      • Kelley, MR and Nairme, JS (2001) von Restorff Revisited: Isolation, Generation, and Memory for Order. Journal of Experimental Psychology; 27 (1): 54-66.

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