Much has been written on the positive aspects ofÂ cognitive fluency (in terms of typography, accents, and almost everything else), but a recent study (pdf,Â 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 ofÂ material across a wide range of subjects (science andÂ humanities classes) and difficulty levels (regular, HonorsÂ and Advanced Placement) can be significantly improvedÂ in naturalistic settings by presenting reading material inÂ a format that is slightly harder to readâ€¦.Â The potential for improving educational practicesÂ through cognitive interventions is immense. If a simpleÂ 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, [â€¦] 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.”