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Scientists find excuse for Comic Sans!*

Just found out about an interesting piece of research on the effects of making things difficult to read on learning:

Diemand-Yauman, Connor, Daniel M. Oppenheimer & Erikka B. Vaughan. (2011) Fortune favors the bold (and the italic): Effects of disfluency on educational outcomes. Cognition, 118 (1),111-115
(at in a pre-print form)

Abstract: Previous research has shown that disfluency – the subjective experience of difficulty associated with cognitive operations – leads to deeper processing. Two studies explore the extent to which this deeper processing engendered by disfluency interventions can lead to improved memory performance. Study 1 found that information in hard-to-read fonts was better remembered than easier to read information in a controlled laboratory setting. Study 2 extended this finding to high school classrooms. The results suggest that superficial changes to learning materials could yield significant improvements in educational outcomes.

The lab study used Comic Sans and Bodoni Italic in a smaller size (12pt) and 60% grey compared with 16pt Arial in full black, and tested recall of fairly simple facts. The school study used teachers’ own existing learning materials – worksheets and PowerPoint slides – and used two classes for each teacher to give a per-teacher control (there was a good effort to make the study ecologically valid).  “The fonts of the learning material in the disfluent condition were either changed to Haettenschweiler [a heavy Gothicy font], Corsiva [light and flowing script-style] or Comic Sans italics [ugh], if the material was on PowerPoint, or were copied disfluently (by moving the paper up and down during copying) when electronic documents were unavailable.” I don’t quite understand the last bit – motion-smeary photocopies?

The children who had the disfluent presentations scored better in “exams”/”classroom tests” (I think these mean the same: no details of the tests are given ) in English (at various levels), Physics (at various levels) and History, but not in Chemistry. There weren’t significant differences between the disfluent fonts.

Diemand-Yauman & al conclude:

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. While disfluency appears to operate as a desirable difficulty, presumably engendering deeper processing strategies (c.f. Alter et al., 2007), the effect is driven by a surface feature that prima facie has nothing to do with semantic processing.

Interesting – and suggests that all the effort I put into my PowerPoints – allowing room for uncrowded text and reasonable point sizes, breaking lines for meaning, trying to find simple, clear, sentence structures….  – might be wasted or counterproductive. It’s worth noting that D-Y&Al were careful to avoid illegibility. They just wanted to add some slight difficulty, and they speculate that the disfluency effect might be U-shaped, and so interfere with learning at higher levels of disfluency.

I picked this up from an article by Matha Gill (a distant relative of Eric Gill, she points iout) in New Statesman. Thanks Martha. The article is headed How Comic Sans got useful. Useful maybe; acceptable, no. In particular, anyone who uses Comic Sans to suggest anything to do with children and their writing should have to read Finnegan’s Wake in condensed Haettenschweiler, or better still Wingdings – and take a test on the content.  That’s what I’d call disfluency.

*There is no excuse for Comic Sans

This is one of those cases, like  Rind, Tromovich & Bauserman (1998), discussed in Garrison & Kobor (2002) [this is a Schools of Thought reference], where science has come up with an unacceptable result.

Alter, A. L., Oppenheimer, D. M., Epley, N., & Eyre, R. (2007). Overcoming intuition: Metacognitive difficulty activates analytic reasoning. Journal of Experimental Psychology, 136(4), 569–576.

Diemand-Yauman, Connor, Daniel M. Oppenheimer & Erikka B. Vaughan. (2011) Fortune favors the bold (and the italic): Effects of disfluency on educational outcomes. Cognition, 118 (1),111-115

Garrison, Ellen & Kobor, Patricia (2002) Weathering a Political Storm: a contextual perspective on a psychological research controversy American Psychologist57 (3), 165-175

Rind, Bruce, Tromovich, Philip & Bauserman, Robert (1998) A Meta-analytic Examination of Assumed Properties of Child Sexual Abuse Using College Samples Psychological Bulletin, 124 (1), 22-53


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