Annotating your textbooks or other study materials is a great way to help you retain what they’re saying—it forces you to read critically and pay attention. Unfortunately, if you don’t do it right, you’re not going to get as many benefits as you should. Here are the right (and wrong) ways to annotate.
Do use colors to annotate
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In the same way you should be color-coding your notes, you should be color-coding your annotations. A simple black pen is fine for writing in margins, but switching the colors of your pen or highlighter will help you quickly identify different elements of your text. It can be as simple as using a red pen to underline concepts you don’t understand and want to study deeper later or as complex as using a yellow highlighter for vocabulary words, a pink one for overarching themes, an orange one for evidence, etc.
Assigning each color a meaning and sticking with it will help you retain your information and make reviewing much easier.
Don’t just underline words when annotating
Instead of simply underlining everything noteworthy, mix in symbols. The Learning Center at the University of North Carolina suggests using symbols that are universal and you already know, like a question mark when something confuses you or an exclamation point when you know something is going to be on the test.
Even if you don’t have a variety of highlighters and pens available, using different symbols to represent different ideas will help you keep everything organized. Try circling new words, drawing a squiggle under unfamiliar ones, and underlining main concepts, for instance. This will keep you more engaged as you read than just underlining as you go.
Do summarize your reading—but not too much
As you’re annotating, you’ll want to summarize your reading in the margins of the page. (If you don’t own the book you’re working out of, you can use a separate paper for this, but make sure you stick it in the book to keep it with the source material at all times.) Try using the GIST method if you have a hard time writing concise summaries—because you absolutely need to be concise. Summarizing is an excellent way to pare down all the new information and leave yourself only the most important concepts that are necessary to grasp it all, but it’s easy to get carried away and write too much. That’s not nearly as helpful as reading critically and pulling out the key elements. This is why using the margins is useful: You have limited space. Try summarizing the main idea of each page in its margin and then summarizing the chapter when you get to the end of it.
Don’t highlight or mark too much when annotating
There is such a thing as highlighting too much. Highlighting is actually a hot topic on teaching forums and blogs, as instructors worry that by spending too much time highlighting, students don’t do enough critical thinking to identify what is and is not worth a swipe of the fluorescent marker. There is a consensus, however, that highlighters are useful if applied thoughtfully and carefully. Only uncap that marker if you’re highlighting something of value that you’ll return to later, like a new idea, vocabulary word, or piece of information you know is on the test. Avoid marking whole sentences and passages, instead focusing only on what is most important within them.