It’s all in the font: fortune favours the bold (and the italicised).

As teachers we spend a lot of our time considering how we can improve the retention of the information that we are providing our learners with.  Many take this consideration down to the level of the font used for a hand-out or on powerpoints.  I remember as a trainee teacher I was told that comic sans was ‘the best’ font to use and can especially aid those with dyslexia (the British Dyslexia Association actually list it with five other fonts that are recommended).

Diemand-Yauman et al. (2011) conducted two studies looking at the effect of ‘disfluent’ fonts suggesting that the additional cognitive processing required to assimilate the information will result in a greater memory trace of the information presented (as in Craig and Tulving’s (1975) Levels of Processing).  It is suggested that these aptly named “desirable difficulties” (such as using a disfluent font) capitalise on this by creating additional cognitive burdens that improve learning.

In the first experiment 28 participants had to recall a list of 21 items of abstract information – details of species of aliens. This task was meant to parallel taxonomic learning in a biology classroom; alien species were used in place of actual species to ensure participants had no prior knowledge of the domain. This informationScreen Shot 2013-07-21 at 15.35.24 was presented using three different types of font (Comic Sans, Bondoni MT and Arial). Results showed a significant difference in recall following a 15 minute delay (t(26) = 2.3, p < .05) with those participants who were presented with the disfluent fonts scoring 14% better on average on a recall test.  A second study was conducted in a naturalistic setting using 222 high school students as a follow up to the initial laboratory study and this supported the initial findings providing further evidence that using disfluent fonts aids recall.

This research would suggest that adding cognitive burden to a student during encoding is beneficial to their later recall.  There are several caveats to consider if / when implementing this.  Diemand-Yauman et al. recognise that it is important to ascertain the point at which material is no longer disfluent but illegible otherwise one would be hindering a student’s progress.  Further to this less motivated, less able, or those with specific statemented learning difficulties could find the fonts unaccessible.

The scope of disfluent interventions is wide and these are cost-effective and easily implemented.  Unless requested by a student with specific difficulties or instructed to by my learning support department I personally use either Arial or Calibri fonts and do not think that I will be changing this practice any time soon.  However, the underlying concepts of creating resources that require students to think and increase the cognitive processes rather than just giving it to them is an interesting on that I will be implementing in my next review of resources over the summer.

Would you consider action research on this? What are your feelings about utilising so-called ‘disfluent’ fonts in class or on worksheets? Your thoughts in the comments.


References

Diemand-Yauman, C., Oppenheimer, D.M., and Vaughan, E.B. (2011) Fortune favors the bold (and the italicized): effects of disfluency on educational outcomes. Cognition, 118, 1, 111-115.

doi: 10.1016/j.cognition.2010.09.012  (full text currently available online here)

Jamie Davies is an occasionally brilliant, 33-year-old assistant principal, teacher, author, data scientist and educationalist from Yorkshire.

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