Improving learning with hard-to-read fonts
As teachers, we often choose an easy-to-read font when making materials in order to make it easier for learners to read. However, research by Diemand-Yauman, Oppenheimer and Vaughan suggests that we may not be doing learners any favours. By deliberately using hard-to-read fonts to incresase the disfluency of the materials, the recall of information seems to be improved.
The researchers used a ‘fluent’ 16-point Arial font in black with a number of ‘disfluent’ fonts, including 12-point Bodoni MT and Comic Sans MS in 60% greyscale, Haettenschweiler and Monotype Corsiva.
The idea that making learners work harder helps to improve their learning is perhaps not surprising. As teachers, we often design activities so that learners ‘discover’ concepts (such as English grammar), rather than having the teacher telling them everything. However, the idea that learning can be improved by changing the font is certainly very interesting. It is also interesting that Comic Sans was used as a disfluent font in the research, as it has gained notoriety for being a favourite among teachers. So, perhaps we have been making our materials harder for learners to read without realising it! In addition, the photocopier has probably been making fonts a disfluent shade of grey!
The research does raise some questions though:
- Can learners adapt to the use of a disfluent font and become fluent with it?
Oppenheimer answers this question in a Harvard Business Review article, suggesting that while learners can become fluent with a particular font, the use of a smaller font size and greyscale is something which they can’t adjust to.
- Could using disfluent fonts reduce the motivation of learners to read?
The research was conducted with students from ‘high performing’ institutions and the researchers acknowledge that less motivated students ‘could become frustrated’ if a disfluent font was used.
- Is the use of disfluent fonts, particularly for language learners, taking things too far and making things too difficult for learners?
Assuming that the students in the study were fluent with the language they were reading, what would be the effect of disfluent fonts on learners who are not fluent with the language? Could the use of a disfluent font coupled with the demands of learning a language result in the cognitive load being too great?