What impact does syntax highlighting have on students' progress in learning a new programming language?

I'm looking for studies along the lines of the following hypothetical experiment, which involves two groups of students: one group would code in an editor performing poor to no syntax highlighting of the language in question...

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...while the other group would code in an editor performing comparatively richer syntax highlighting.

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Do you know of any such studies? Do you have otherwise relevant references? A quick Google search hasn't returned much...


2 Answers 2


Human-computer interaction describes the creation of programs that use colors effectively. Here we are not discussing how effective the implementation of the HCI colors are, but instead are focusing on the learned pair association and repetition of color training in the psychology of learning programming.

Learned pair association is a way of memorizing information by associating it with another set of information. In the United States and many other countries, when driving, there is an association between red traffic signals and "stop." When people see the color red in a light or at a sign for a distance, they know to stop.

Repetition is the process of repeating the same association with and without exposure time delay until it becomes memorized.

Association with color reinforcements take advantage of the Stroop effect. After sufficient training the brain sees the color green and thinks "comment" or the color purple and thinks "text string":

Such interference was explained by the automation of reading, where the mind automatically determines the semantic meaning of the word (it reads the word "red" and thinks of the color "red"), and then must intentionally check itself and identify instead the color of the word (the ink is a color other than red), a process that is not automatized.


Other research has been done with more alternations of text type. Consistency seems to reinforce learning.


Charles Fletcher, one of my professors as an undergraduate, studies reading comprehension. He once mentioned a program called LiveInk, which he researches. This program is intended to improve comprehension for ordinary English, not programming language, but I don't see why it wouldn't work for programming language as well, to some extent at least. It sometimes introduces color (especially with verbs, apparently), but mostly breaks sentences into separate lines with varying indentation, which could be a problem for programming I suppose, but if not, indentation could also be another useful trick. I tried using LiveInk to format my answer and give you a sense of how it works on a decent-sized batch of text. It used one color (maroon) on the words I have bolded here, but I couldn't preserve the indentation (at least, I'm not that good with HTML).

Check it out! LiveInk's research page might give you some better things to read than Google, depending on what search terms you choose with Google, of course.

Edit: This question may also be relevant: Effect of words highlighting on reading comprehension

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    $\begingroup$ Thanks for your answer. You may also bee (pun intended) interested in beelinereader.com $\endgroup$
    – jub0bs
    Commented Jan 16, 2014 at 1:11
  • $\begingroup$ Definitely! You might be interested in research on BeeLine Reader! (Not that this link is particularly useful "research.") $\endgroup$ Commented Jan 16, 2014 at 1:14

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