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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