By Shania Kuo
Colors. They’re essential to seeing the world and all its wonders. However, do they really have a place in your notes? From highlighting to different color pens, students don't realize that their vast color palette may be doing them more harm than good since most students don’t utilize colors correctly. So, how can you avoid this?
Highlighting is the first thing students think of when hearing their teacher say “annotate this story/poem/article/etc.” The problem arrives when people start highlighting every detail without any actual annotations. Now, you’re unable to quickly identify what you highlighted or why you highlighted it in the first place. The time students waste searching for quotes they knew they read could be utilized elsewhere had they been more organized.
Another tip to remember is to keep your highlighter colors simple. When students use colors that are too vibrant, they can strain their eyes; the colors heavily contrast with the writing which makes the highlighted text difficult to read. Instead of pink, blue, and green, stick with yellow unless told otherwise by your teachers. Too many different colors can make it difficult to understand what you highlighted or draw attention away from crucial phrases.
If you’re insistent on using different-colored highlighters, my suggestion is to make a key. For example, let’s use a scenario of annotating a text for English. You could use yellow for any text you can quote, green for literary elements, pink for word choice, and blue for different messages or central ideas introduced. Make a legend on the corner of your paper if you think you’ll have trouble remembering to make it easier on yourself when you go back to review.
Also, highlighter quality is just as important in aiding your annotating success. There are many highlighter brands that are too runny and bleed through the paper. This can make reading the text on the other side unappealing and distort the words. Highlighters I recommend are Sharpie’s Accent and Staple’s Hype highlighters.
Writing in different colors can give notes a vibrant and lively appearance. However, this is capable of working against students as well. Pen colors face the same problem as highlighters in that many students tend to write in different colors. While this may make your notes look nice, they mean nothing if you have a hard time reading them. Black and blue tend to be easier to understand than red. If you’ve ever had a bright colored pen—pink for example—then you’d know it’s hard to see on a white background, and the color irritates your eyes.
Also be aware if you're using too many colors. If you do use too many, then it is confusing for your eyes and mind to decide what to focus on first as your mind will tend to want to jump around. At most, students should take care to use only two to three colors and stick with black or blue for primary usage.
As an example of how you can manage your color usage, when I write notes, I tend to write any main ideas or headings in blue. Any critical notes—say, a hint for the test—I would write in red to draw attention. For steps to solve a particular kind of question, I tend to use blue. This system is ingrained in my mind, and it makes it easier for me to understand my notes and why I chose specific colors when I go to review.
Post-Its are some of the most versatile tools for students to use. However, many students fail to utilize them properly. If you read my article on notes, you’d know all types of note-taking styles have their flaws. Post-Its, however, are an easy way to supplement your notes and take advantage of their different colors.
The most common way people use Post-Its are as markers for page numbers or to jot down ideas about a certain section of a text. However, what students write makes more sense with context, and it can be frustrating to search for where you received your information from again. Large Post-Its may be useful for storing large amounts of information, but I recommend using Post-It Flags in particular. They are thinner versions of Post-Its and can be used to easily locate specific content in a body of text.
I happen to use them in particular for AP review books or SAT/ACT review books (not all brands are created equal, look forward to a piece on which books you should use for your tests!) which cover specific content on different sections, making it a tedious task of flipping back and forth. To avoid this, I marked dividing pages between topics with yellow flags. Meanwhile, I use pink flags to indicate topics I didn’t understand and blue for topics I knew, but needed to review.
Even better, flags can make for helpful methods when using an organizational layout sheet. An example would be a notebook with only one area to write down what you need to do. Instead of using that precious space, trim a Post-It down or use a flag and place it onto the space provided. Color code it by importance (red = most important; blue = second, etc.). When you’re done with the week, you can simply peel and throw away the Post-Its. Or, if you like to keep a track record of what you like to do (like me), then you can post it onto a spare notebook with the date on top.
Colors have a lot more impact than most people expect. When used properly, they are an organizational force that can keep students’ notes legible and efficient. On the other hand, when used improperly, they can be destructive forces to your grades. So, tread wisely.