Is There Any Benefit in “Circle This Highlight That”?

circle this highlight thatDo you circle, underline and highlight your study notes? Many of us do. One of the popular CPA review courses even suggests which exact words we should circle and underline in their videos.

How useful is the habit of highlighting? Is there a difference between underlying a phrase you personally feel important vs blindly following the instructors?

Research on Effectiveness of Highlighting

Let’s look at this research from the University of Mississippi. Participating students were divided into 3 groups and asked to perform the following tasks:

  • Group 1: Read an article with no underline.
  • Group 2: Read an article with important points underlined.
  • Group 3: Read an article with random points underlined.

After reading, participants were asked to:

  • Self-assess their level of comprehension of the article.
  • Answer a series of questions about the article (i.e. objective assessment of their understanding of the article).


Group 3 performed the worst, reflecting the negative impact of improper highlighting.

This was expected, but what surprised the researchers was that the performance of Group 1 and Group 2 was similar. This means that there is little use of reading pre-underlined article if the highlighting is done by someone else.

Even More Surprising Findings…

When looking at the difference between self-assessment and objective assessment, Group 3 overestimated their performance by the largest margin. Interestingly, Group 2 also overestimated their own level of comprehension when compared to Group 1.

Overestimating your own performance is BAD when it comes to CPA exam preparation.


This research is highly relevant to our exam study in many ways.

First of all, for those who purchase second hand review books because they want to save the effort of underlying and highlighting, it’s a bad idea. Not only it does not help, it makes you overestimate how familiar you are with the materials.

Similarly, do not highlight this and circle that simply because the instructors in the video ask you to do. Little will stick because the materials barely goes through your head. Worse, it makes you feel as if you know the stuff when you are not.

Stop Following The Circle This Highlight That

What’s a better way to study? It’s plain and simple. Quickly go through each topic once. Then, go back to each subtopic, highlight only the areas YOU feel important (e.g. heavily tested or your own weak areas).

If you are using second hand books, do your own highlighting in a different way e.g. wriggling lines or with a different color.

Onto the Next Topic…

Let’s explore whether learning through multiple channels (e.g. text book, test prep software, video, audio and flashcards) is beneficial to our CPA exam preparation here in our Brain Power Series on exam studies.

Research Reference

Gier, V. S., Kreiner, D. S., & Natz-Gonzalez, A. (2009). Harmful effects of preexisting inappropriate highlighting on reading comprehension and metacognitive accuracy. Journal of General Psychology, 136, 297-300.

About the Author Stephanie Ng

I am the author of How to Pass The CPA Exam (published by Wiley) and the publisher of this and several accounting professional exam prep sites

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