Hard-to-Read Fonts Improve Learning

Much has been written on the positive aspects of cognitive fluency (in terms of typography, accents, and almost everything else), but a recent study (pdf, doi) suggests that the opposite (cognitive disfluency) could lead to better learning. The theory is that harder-to-process material requires “deeper processing” and that this deeper processing leads to superior memory performance.

Earlier this year the ever-excellent Jonah Lehrer summarised the study, describing how long-term learning and retention improved when classroom material was set in a hard-to-read font (e.g. Monotype Corsiva, Comic Sans Italicized or Haettenschweiler).

This study demonstrated that student retention of material across a wide range of subjects (science and humanities classes) and difficulty levels (regular, Honors and Advanced Placement) can be significantly improved in naturalistic settings by presenting reading material in a format that is slightly harder to read…. The potential for improving educational practices through cognitive interventions is immense. If a simple change of font can significantly increase student performance, one can only imagine the number of beneficial cognitive interventions waiting to be discovered.

One of the study authors, in a comment published in a New York Times article looking at cognitive fluency in learning, emphasises how it’s not the font that matters, but the processing difficulty:

“The reason that the unusual fonts are effective is that it causes us to think more deeply about the material, […] but we are capable of thinking deeply without being subjected to unusual fonts. Think of it this way, you can’t skim material in a hard to read font, so putting text in a hard-to-read font will force you to read more carefully.”

2 thoughts on “Hard-to-Read Fonts Improve Learning

  1. Sharon Twiss

    I see how unusual fonts in a graphic might improve retention. But in the body text? In the last series of classes I attended, the workbooks were in an annoying font, one that had circular forms for the o’s, c’s, etc. Impossible to skim. Instead of struggling with it, I didn’t bother reading it all.

    If you’re going to make me work hard to read your text, every single word better be worth it.

  2. Kimberly

    I was recently in my sister’s classroom at her school (she’s a primary school teacher) and was mocking her use of comic sans for her class signs etc. She informs me that comic sans is one of the few (and the most legible) free font she has available that uses the lower case letter ‘a’ they teach children to write (as opposed to the one used here). This is also why lots of educational establishments choose it.

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