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The use of marginal notes to improve tertiary text

S. Cyril Driver
Centre for the Study of Higher Education
University of Melbourne

Four random groups, each of 25 university students, studied text material with and without marginal notes and highlighting. At the conclusion of a one hour study period all students were given a comprehensive objective test and asked to complete a short questionnaire. The essential differences between these conditions of learning is that marginal notes are provided by the author whereas highlighting is done by the student, in response to his decision of what is important. The latter is a more active mode of learning and the implications of increasing the level of learner activity in the task is discussed.

An earlier study has shown that well structured and appropriately designed text can facilitate the learning process, (Glynn, et al 1985) Although typographic design has made considerable advances during the last generation, educational texts, particularly in higher education, have largely ignored the "conditions for learning". As one interviews individual students, immediately after a learning task, one becomes acutely aware of the lack of organisation of many university texts. This is a particular problem in textual materials for distance education students, because neither staff nor peers are readily available to provide assistance - the text materials, including associated diagrams and tables, must be able to stand alone as source materials for learning. Even on campus students are often separated from anyone who can provide immediate assistance and the text or texts must carry the full burden of responsibility as the learning resource.

Although text is the dominant medium of learning in Higher Education there have been surprisingly few attempts to produce quality texts which take account of the principles of learning. Organisation of the material to be learned is one of these principles. Anderson (1980) has observed, "If the research on human memory has shown one thing, it is that the organisation of material is of central importance", and again, " important principle of retention is totally frustrated by standard textbook structure". The present study arose as a means of providing a greater measure of control over textual learning materials, in higher education.

Although a degree of redundancy will assist learning, every mark on a page of text should be placed there for a purpose - to do otherwise is to trivialise the learning process. "A select set of details is presented to create redundancy (which improves memory) and to add interest and credibility to the main points", (Anderson, 1980).

A study of medical text has shown that as authors (or lecturers) exert an increasing degree of control over learning materials, students are left in less doubt about the nature of the learning task and obstacles to the learning process are less frequent (Driver, 1986). The study protocol recorder (S.P.R.) record clearly indicates the precise points in the text where difficulties occur and shows how long the student spends looking back at earlier work, in an effort to overcome the difficulty.

One way of providing an ordered framework for the text is through marginal notes. If these are written, or approved, by the author of the text, then they will provide a summary of the central points elaborated in the text and should provide a reliable guide to students. Learners will be in no doubt about the aspects of the text which should be central in their learning. Students are no longer left to guess which areas of the text they should concentrate upon. This can only occur when authors of text first clarify their own ideas and refine their expectations and objectives of student learning. It is unnecessary and undesirable that students should study all aspects of the text in equal depth - priorities for student learning must be established. These need to be realistic and clearly communicated by the lecturer to the student. This is where marginal notes can provide the structure or framework for learners. Marginal annotations are in effect the author's highlighting, or emphasising, of those concepts and information considered vital for student learning.

In the present study two factors are investigated - the use of marginal notes and the use of highlighters in student learning. These factors are of particular interest, because although they are both modes of "highlighting" important aspects of text, and both therefore establish priorities, or an hierarchy, within the text, the former represents the author's judgement and the latter the students' judgement, about the important aspects of the text. In an ideal learning situation these two modes of emphasis should coincide.


Four random groups, each consisting of 25 higher education students, studied an unfamiliar text under the following conditions:
Group 1: Booklet without marginalia or highlighting.
Group 2: Booklet with marginalia but no highlighting.
Group 3: Booklet without marginalia but with highlighting.
Group 4: Booklet with marginalia and highlighting.
The learning task for all subjects consisted of reading the 79 page booklet Living with Kidney Failure (Australian Kidney Foundation, 1984) under examination conditions for 60 minutes. Not all students were able to complete the task in the time allowed, so this ensured that the learners were under time pressure, as they frequently are in normal private study. Groups 1 and 2 (without highlighting) were instructed to read the material for one hour and not to turn back, but keep moving forward. After one hour they were asked to close the booklet and take a test on the material presented from pages 1 to 79 of the booklet. They were asked not to mark the booklet and not to take any notes. After taking the test students were requested to complete a short questionnaire. Groups 3 and 4 (using highlighting) were given similar instructions to Groups 1 and 2, except they were asked: "As you read the text, highlight (by marking over the relevant portions of the text) those parts of the text you consider important for your learning."

The marginal notes were printed in a smaller typeface and presented information which the author considered important. These notes were originally extended to act as advance organisers and/or summary statements which would be helpful for revision purposes.

The booklet was written and designed for renal patients, their families and friends. It contained all the information, both medical and psychological, which would be required for the patient with renal failure, and their friends. The printed information was illustrated with simple line drawings where it was felt that this would assist the reader. Groups 1 and 3, who studied editions without marginal notes, simply had the blank margins in their booklets. The seven page objective test consisted of 78 items, divided approximately equally between multiple choice and completed response questions. These questions covered all chapters in the booklet, but not all pages.


Either marginalia or highlighting will be a significant advantage in terms of learning outcomes, but both used together will be no more advantageous than one on its own. The first two of these hypotheses arises directly from previous studies which have shown that cued material was usually learned better than uncued material. Assumptions underlying this study are that the four groups were equal on all variables except the two independent variables which were controlled in the experimental conditions. This equality of the four groups is based on the 'power of randomisation' (Linn 1986), so that pre-existing differences (eg. students who had previously studied renal physiology or biology) are distributed randomly over the four groups.


Table 1 represents ANOVA analysis of the data obtained from the four groups on an immediate post-test.

Analysis of variance
Mean scores for separate treatment groups


For entire population

Group 1
(no marginal notes, no highlighting)
Group 2
(marginal notes, no highlighting)
Group 3
(no marginal notes, highlighting)
Group 4
(marginal notes, highlighting)

Table 2 displays the results of the combined groups ie. with and without marginal notes and with and without highlighting.

Results of combined groups

Combined groupsMeant (one-tailed)

With marginal notes (groups 2&4)39.64 | 1.777 (96 df)
Without marginal notes (groups 1&3)36.025| (significant at 0.05 level)

With highlighting (groups 3&4)36.26 | N.S.
Without highlighting (groups 1 & 2)39.40|

The main results shown in Tables 1 and 2 are as follows:

The gain in the mean group scores by the use of marginal notes is graphically represented in Figure 1. The use of the highlighter, both with and without marginal notes, produced a small, but not significant loss in mean score. Group 1 that used neither marginalia nor highlighting may be considered the control group.


The use of marginalia has been shown to improve learning, as tested by immediate recall. This supports the general thrust of the research literature on typographic cueing as summarised by Glynn, Britton and Tillman (1985). Student responses in the questionnaire attested to the assistance provided by the marginal notes. Less than 10 per cent of students failed to make substantial use of them. It is difficult to determine to what extent uncued material may have been neglected, due to the presence of cues. However, as many of the 78 questions in the post-test were not cued or referred to in the marginal notes, it is possible not a major effect.

Marginalia may fulfil functions (eg. advance organisers, summary statements) and there is little doubt from responses to the questionnaire that students differ markedly in the manner in which they utilise marginalia. Students generally appreciated the effort that had been made to provide marginal notes to assist their learning and as a result had more enthusiasm for their learning task. For many the marginalia provided an outline on which to organise or arrange other material.

Figure 1

Figure 1: The results of learning from text using highlighting and marginal notes

Jonassen (1984) has referred to the provision of an effective 'ideational scaffold' on which students can build. Similarly, Chacon-Duque (1985) remarks that 'advance organisers may be expository when they present directly the conceptual schema of subsequent text; or comparative, when they draw analogies from other sources to introduce new material'. The essential difference between advance organisers and summaries (or overviews) is that the former are written at a higher level of abstraction. Most marginalia in the booklet used in this study was of the summary type.

The hypothesis concerning the expected improvement in learning by the use of highlighting was not confirmed. Personal observation of the test situation together with questionnaire responses may provide an explanation for this. Many students were unfamiliar with the use of highlighters and found that with limited time available they were unable to concentrate on the learning task if they made full use of the highlighters. Consequently, a few students made little or no use of them, but of course these subjects were not excluded from their assigned groups. Others made comprehensive use of highlighters, but their progress was somewhat delayed by this and they failed to finish the text. We would expect this to be reflected in their test scores. Data is available on the page reached by each student when their study time expired. It would be interesting to examine their scores on test questions which dealt with material up to the point they reached. It is possible that they made slower progress but the quality of their learning was enhanced by using highlighters.

In comparing the use of marginalia and highlighting it must be borne in mind that there are several basic differences between these methods of typographic signalling. For example, marginalia is:

Highlighting is the reverse of each of these characteristics.

The reason subjects were asked not to re-read sections of the text, or make any notes, was so that the learning processes might be based on a single reading of the text. The more students re-read the text, and refer back to clarify doubtful points, the more weaknesses and deficiencies in the original passage are likely to be overcome and compensated by repeated learning efforts. The limited time available also helps to keep students moving forward, by providing only sufficient time for a single reading. While it is acknowledged that normal private study involves re-reading sections, referring back and forth through the text, and often note taking, these characteristics have been deliberately sacrificed in order to achieve more accurate measures of differences in learning under varied experimental conditions.

Some educational research writers (eg. Duchastel, 1979) have been critical of experimental paradigms which do not resemble normal studying behaviour (eg. where students are not permitted to study freely and review material). However, it is submitted that the ends justify the means in the present study. Nevertheless, future studies could approximate normal conditions more closely by measuring delayed recall as well as immediate recall. In addition, it would be of interest to know how students studying under the various conditions performed on post-tests which examined the higher cognitive abilities such as analysis, synthesis and evaluation - rather than merely recall and comprehension at the knowledge level.

Marginalia may provide valuable assistance to students in higher education by typographically signalling cues to the structure of learning. In the present study two of the original three hypotheses have been confirmed. We should therefore encourage authors and lecturers to make more use of this learning device. At present there is limited use of marginalia in certain law textbooks and printed proceedings or parliamentary debates, but little elsewhere. Authors will need to refine their ideas, be clearer about aims, objectives and desired outcomes of learning, and write with greater precision. Marginalia is a textual device whereby authors may accurately communicate to learners their aims and priorities for the learning task. Learners have indicated that they appreciate this effort.


Australian Kidney Foundation (1984). Living with Kidney Failure.

Chacon-Duque, F. J. (1985). Building Academic Quality in Distance Higher Education. A Monograph in Higher Education Evaluation and Policy. Pennsylvania State University.

Driver, S. C. (1986). Medical Text and Student Strategies of Learning. In Proceedings of Educational Technology International Conference, London.

Duchastel, P. S. (1979). Adjunct Questions Effects and Experimental Constraints. The American College, Department of Research and Evaluation, Occasional Paper 1, Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania.

Entwistle, N. J. (1982). Approaches and Styles: Recent Research on Students' Learning. Educational Analysis, 4(2), 43-54.

Entwistle, N. J. and Ramsden, P. (1983). Understanding Student Learning. Croom Helm, London.

Glynn, S., Britton, B. and Tillman, M. H. (1985). Typographic cues in text: Management of the reader's attention. In Jonassen, D. (ed), The Technology of Text, 2. Educational Technology Publications, Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey.

Hartley, J., Bartlett, S. and Branthwaite, A. (1980). Underlining can make a difference - sometimes. Journal of Educational Research, 73, 218-222.

Hartley, J. and Burnhill, P. (eds) (1981) The spatial arrangement of text. Special issue of Visible Language, 15.

Jonassen, D. (1984). Using graphic organizers in instruction. Information Design Journal, 4, 58- 68.

Linn, R. L. (1986). Quantitative methods in research on teaching. In Wittock, M. C. (ed), Handbook of Research on Teaching. 3rd edition. Macmillan, New York.

Author: Mr S. C. Driver, Senior Lecturer, Centre for the Study of Higher Education, University of Melbourne. Cyril Driver, who is Senior Lecturer and Coordinator of Audio Visual Services, University of Melbourne, has a long standing interest in Educational Technology. In addition to teaching an Educational Technology Course in the Master of Education Program, his current interests lie mainly in the area of individualised learning and the use of print media in higher education. His most recent research has been on the role of marginal notes and/or highlighting in the learning process.

Please cite as: Driver, S. C. (1988). The use of marginal notes to improve tertiary text. In J. Steele and J. G. Hedberg (Eds), Designing for Learning in Industry and Education, 160-165. Proceedings of EdTech'88. Canberra: AJET Publications.

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