Faculty Focus


How Highlighters Can Help Students Write Better Research Papers

Highlighters of different colors

For decades, students have used highlighters to color-code notes and to indicate key passages of research sources, but there is another, less common but equally important, use for highlighters in the research writing process: highlighting research essay drafts.

As a composition professor, each semester I teach students the art of writing a research paper, but no matter how much I stress to students the importance of balancing cited information with their own writing, many drafts either contain far too few citations or are overpowered with paragraphs composed almost entirely of cited content. Even after further lectures and feedback on drafts, it still doesn’t always click with 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 must be another way to help students write a better research paper.

Enter the humble highlighter.

The process

Highlighting drafts in a face-to-face class

In addition to a hard 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 will be doing with highlighters. (Two of my favorite student guesses: using highlighters to create visuals for their research paper and using highlighters to create tattoo designs.)

Students don’t draw any images on peer-review day but instead use highlighters in a much more traditional sense; they highlight any information that they learned through reading a source. In other words, they highlight any information that requires citation.

After they’ve finished highlighting, I remind my students of two points:

  1. If they haven’t highlighted anything (or have highlighted very little), the draft doesn’t contain enough cited evidence.
  2. If highlighting has changed the color of their paper, the draft includes too many citations.

Highlighting drafts in an online class

Adapting draft highlighting in the virtual classroom can take different forms. In a synchronous class, a live video conference can replicate highlighting just as it would in a face-to-face course. If teaching asynchronously, some of the immediacy of the interaction is lost, but the experience can be replicated by walking students through the process with a short video. Though many online students may prefer to simply highlight their drafts on the screen, I encourage them to print whenever possible, as seeing the printed page provides a visual of an entire document at once.

The follow-up

After students highlight their drafts, we again discuss the importance of balancing arguments and cited evidence. I ask for volunteers to share their drafts to provide a visual of what too little or too much citation may look like. I also share a sample student paper with an appropriate amount of citation.   

Even though students have practiced citation and examined student samples before writing their drafts, when they directly apply the concept to their own writing, they develop a better understanding of how to effectively incorporate evidence and are less-likely to submit a paper composed almost entirely of quotes 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 managing stress and are less likely to drop out (Berry, 2019).  I teach at a community college, and my courses may have dual-enrolled high school students as well as older, returning students. A larger disparity in age can sometimes make it more difficult for students to connect with each other, but this low-stakes activity is easily completed by everyone. The shared learning experience means that students are more likely (and more willing) to share their writing with classmates and form connections with each other as they navigate the research essay assignment.

Highlighting engages students of various learning styles

As teachers, we often teach in ways that match our own learning styles; however, by including classroom activities that engage varied learning styles, the academic achievement of those students who have learning styles that differ from our own will likely increase (Ovez and Uyangor, 2016). Highlighting drafts engages the four learning styles of the VARK model (visual, auditory, reading/writing, 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 directions and then discussing results with classmates. Reading/writing learners become further engaged with their own writing as they develop their arguments through highlighting, revising, and editing. Highlighting helps kinesthetic learners, as they feel connected by physically working with their drafts.

This exercise also benefits students with learning styles in the expanded model. It engages logical learners by providing another way to organize their thoughts and practice the detailed procedures of citation. It can also engage both social (extroverted) and solitary (introverted) learners, as the exercise may be set up to allow students to work in groups or work individually.

Highlighting helps prevent accidental plagiarism

Students who are new to research writing sometimes mistakenly believe that a paraphrase or statistic from a source doesn’t need to be cited. During this exercise, I remind them that if they’re highlighting any part of their drafts, they learned the information from a source, and thus it must be followed by an in-text citation. While students in upper division courses might not need this reminder, highlighting can still be a useful tool to double-check correct citation.

Highlighting provides a quick way to create a reverse outline

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

More experienced writers may simply need to quickly review each paragraph to double-check the focus; however, less-experienced writers may wish to develop their reverse outline more completely by choosing another color highlighter to mark the thesis statement and topic sentences or even use a separate document to complete a reverse outline.

The takeaway

Don’t rule out the simplicity or effectiveness of low-tech options. In a world where seemingly almost every aspect of our lives is immersed in technology, one where online learning platforms and digital solutions can feel like the only solution, using a low-tech or traditional teaching strategy can often result in not only building community in the classroom but also 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 20+ years teaching experience.


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

Övez, Filiz T.D. and Sevinc M. Uyangör (2016). “The effect of the match between the learning and teaching styles of secondary school mathematics teachers on students’ achievement,” Journal of Education and Practice. 7 no. 29: 125-132. https://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/EJ1118892.pdf