Using 'hard to read' fonts may help you remember more

June, 2011

Two experiments manipulating fonts to create texts that are slightly more difficult to read has found that such texts are better remembered.

It must be easier to learn when your textbook is written clearly and simply, when your teacher speaks clearly, laying the information out with such organization and clarity that everything is obvious. But the situation is not as clear-cut as it seems. Of course, organization, clarity, simplicity, are all good attributes — but maybe information can be too clearly expressed. Maybe students learn more if the information isn’t handed to them on a platter.

A recent study looked at the effects of varying the font in which a text was written, in order to vary the difficulty with which the information could be read. In the first experiment, 28 adults (aged 18-40) read a text describing three species of aliens, each with seven characteristics, about which they would be tested. The control group saw the text in 16-point Arial, while two other versions were designed to be harder to read: 12-point Comic Sans MS at 60% grayscale and 12-point Bodoni MT at 60% grayscale. These harder-to-read texts were not noticeably more difficult; they would still be easily read. Participants were given only 90 seconds to memorize the information in the lists, and then were tested on their recall of the information after some 15 minutes doing other tasks.

Those with the harder-to-read texts performed significantly better on the test than those who had the standard text (an average of 86.5% correct vs 72.8%).

In the second experiment, involving 222 high school students from six different classes (English, Physics, History, and Chemistry, and including regular, Honors, and Advanced Placement classes), the text of their worksheets (and in the case of the physics classes, PowerPoint slides) was manipulated. While some sections of the class received the materials in their normal font, others experienced the text written in either Haettenschweiler, Monotype Corsiva, Comic Sans italicized, or smeared (by moving the paper during copying).

Once again, students who read the texts in one of the difficult conditions remembered the material significantly better than those in the control condition. As in the first study, there was no difference between the difficult fonts.

While it is possible that the use of these more unusual fonts made the text more distinctive, the fonts were not so unusual as to stand out, and moreover, their novelty should have diminished over the course of the semester. It seems more likely that these findings reflect the ‘desirable difficulty’ effect. However, it should be noted that getting the ‘right’ level of difficulty is a tricky thing — you need to be in the right place of what is surely a U-shaped curve. A little too much difficulty and you can easily do far more damage than good!

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