How highlighters can help students write better research papers

For decades, students have used highlighters to color-code notes and mark important passages from research sources, but there is another, less common but equally important use for highlighters in the research writing process: highlighting draft research papers.

As a composition professor, I teach students the art of writing a research paper each semester, but no matter how much I stress to students the importance of balancing quoted information with their own writing, many drafts either have far too few citations or are overwhelmed with paragraphs, consisting almost entirely of quoted content. Even after further lectures and feedback on drafts, things don’t always work out for the students. Over the years I’ve tried a number of different strategies, all with varying degrees of success. Frustrated with the results, I knew there had to be another way to help students write better research papers.

Enter the humble highlighter.

The process

Highlighting designs in a face-to-face class

In addition to a printed copy of their draft, I ask students to bring a highlighter with them on peer review day. I never tell them why as we make it a lighthearted guessing game of what we’re going to do with highlighters. (Two of my favorite student guesses: using highlighters to create images for their research paper and using highlighters to create tattoo designs.)

Students do not draw pictures on the peer review day but use highlighters in a much more traditional sense; They highlight all the information they got from reading a source. In other words, they highlight any information that needs to be cited.

After they finish highlighting, I remind my students of two points:

  1. If they didn’t highlight anything (or highlighted very little), then the draft does not have enough cited evidence.
  2. If the highlight has changed the color of your paper, the design has too many quotes.

Highlighting drafts in an online course

Customizing the highlighting of drafts in the virtual classroom can take a variety of forms. In a synchronous class, a live video conference can replicate the highlighting just like in a face-to-face class. With asynchronous teaching, some of the immediacy of the interaction is lost, but the experience can be replicated by guiding students through the process with a short video. Although many online students prefer to simply highlight their designs on screen, I encourage them to print whenever possible, as viewing the printed page provides a visual representation of an entire document at once.

The succession

After students have highlighted their drafts, we again discuss the importance of weighing arguments and cited evidence. I ask volunteers to share their designs to give a picture of what too little or too much citation might look like. I’m also sharing a sample student paper with a fair amount of citations.

Even if students practice citing and examining student samples before writing their drafts, when they apply the concept directly to their own writing, they develop a better understanding of how to effectively include evidence and are less likely to submit a paper , which consists almost entirely of citations from research sources.

How highlighting benefits students and helps them write better research papers

Highlighting builds community

Research has shown that creating a sense of community within the classroom benefits students emotionally, academically, and socially. Students who feel a sense of community are also better at coping with stress and less likely to drop out (Berry, 2019). I teach at an adult education center, and my courses can accommodate dual enrolled high school students as well as older, returning students. A larger age difference can sometimes make it difficult for students to connect with one another, but this low-stakes activity is easily undertaken by all. The shared learning experience means that students are more likely (and more willing) to share their writing with classmates and build connections with each other as they navigate the research essay task.

Highlighting stimulates students with different learning styles

As teachers, we often teach in a way that suits our own learning style; By incorporating classroom activities that incorporate different learning styles, the academic performance of students whose learning styles differ from ours is likely to increase (Ovez and Uyangor, 2016). Highlighting designs incorporates the four learning styles of the VARK model (visual, auditory, literacy, and kinesthetic). Highlighting engages visual learners by creating a visible representation of how much information they have cited. Auditory learners benefit from highlighting by listening to instructions and then discussing the results with classmates. Read/write learners engage more deeply with their own writing as they develop their arguments through highlighting, revising, and editing. Highlighting helps kinesthetic learners as the physical work makes them feel connected to their designs.

This exercise will also benefit students with learning styles in the extended model. It stimulates logical learners by offering another way to organize their thoughts and practice the detailed procedures of citation. It can also appeal to both social (extroverted) and lonely (introverted) learners, as the exercise can be set up for students to work in groups or individually.

Highlighting prevents accidental plagiarism

Students new to research writing sometimes mistakenly believe that a paraphrase or statistic from a source need not be cited. During this exercise, I remind them that if they highlight part of their designs, they got the information from a source and so they must be followed by an in-text citation. While students in high school courses may not need this reminder, highlighting can still be a useful tool to verify correct citation.

Highlight provides a quick way to create an inverted outline

A reverse outline allows authors to examine the focus, content, and organization of their drafts. By highlighting cited evidence in each paragraph, students remove supporting details and can easily identify the topic sentence in each paragraph (or note where topic sentences are missing).

More experienced writers may simply need to quickly review each paragraph to check focus. however, less experienced writers may want to develop their reverse outline more fully, choosing a different colored highlighter to mark the thesis statement and topic sentences, or even using a separate document to complete a reverse outline.

take that away

Don’t rule out the simplicity or effectiveness of low-tech options. In a world where technology seems to pervade almost every aspect of our lives, this is what online learning platforms and digital solutions can feel like only solution, using a low-tech or traditional teaching strategy can often result in not only building community in the classroom, but creating a positive learning environment for all students.

Susan M. Plachta, MA and MS, is an English professor at St. Clair County Community College with more than 20 years of teaching experience.


Berry, Sharla (2019). “Teaching to Connect: Community Building Strategies for the Virtual Classroom.” learn online. 23, No. 1: 164-183. doi:10.24059/olj.v23i1.1425.

Övez, Filiz TD and Sevinc M. Uyangör (2016). “The Effect of Matching the Learning and Teaching Styles of Secondary School Mathematics Teachers on Student Achievement”, Journal of Education and Practice. 7 no. 29:125-132.

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