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Category Archives: 3. Learning & Teaching

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


Presentations: some thoughts about the performance aspects

Here are some suggestions for performing well in presentations. I originally wrote them after criticising a student for lack of ‘presence’ in a presentation, who then asked me “how do you do ‘presence’ then?” Good question, and Pete Posthlethwaite, the master of riveting screen presence, isn’t around to ask any more. So I went away and thought about it , and asked my son the Drama graduate, and put together some suggestions. I thought they might be worth repeating here.

Approach: The ideal line to take is “I’ve got something interesting to say, and I’d like people to hear me say it, and I really would like them to get the point of what I’m saying” – but you may find it difficult to feel like that.
Someone in a previous round of presentations said “it’s good to have a handout, because then people will look at it, and not at you”, which is logical enough, but the wrong way round. To present effectively, your manner has to say “look at ME! pay attention to ME!”, and that’s not easy if you’re really thinking “don’t look at me”. OK, you’re not that kind of person, but see it as an acting job: you have to pretend to be a show-off for five minutes. Most people can act to that extent.
Similarly, you may know that you’re only talking about your topic because you have to say something in the presentation, and you want to get through it as fast as possible and get off stage and relax. It’s not good if that comes through. Pretend that you’ve got something interesting and important to tell to the audience, and that it’s important that they understand it. If you were asked to do that with a shopping list or a telephone directory as an acting exercise, you could do it: so you could do the same thing with research findings.

Reading: don’t do it. If you try reading a presentation and video it (good practice, and with a webcam, or a book to prop your phone up, you can video yourself any time you like), you may be surprised at how wooden and unnatural you look and sound when you read. Also, if you’ve tried reading a presentation, you may have been surprised how many mistakes you made, and how easy it was to lose your place. This is not because you are stupid or incompetent: there is a good psychological reason for it. You need to be highly skilled to do several tasks at the same time. You can probably walk and chew gum at the same time, but reading (which imposes a significant cognitive load), and thinking about the content, and thinking about getting through to the audience, is just too much for most people, especially if you’re anxious. If you know about the Yerkes-Dodson graph of how arousal affects performance, you’ll know that it’s just these kinds of complex tasks which are messed up by moderate levels of arousal.

Of course, what I’ve just said may not apply to you. There are some people who can read material, make it sound sensible, and sound natural and connect with their audience at the same time. You may be one of these people. If so, don’t waste your time on a psychology degree; become a radio or TV continuity announcer. If you’re very good-looking, you could even be a presenter. It’s better-paid than being a psychologist, and probably easy work if you’re one of the very few people who can do it well. You might also consider politics, though not all politicians have this skill. Blair was OK, Clinton was brilliant, Bush is useless at it, Obama is great in big meetings, not so good straight to the screen. Bartlet is pretty good, as long as he’s not having one of his funny turns.

Visual aids: PowerPoint can be useful for getting information over to the audience – though if it’s used thoughtlessly it can be useless or insulting – but it can also be useful to the presenter. You can use it instead of the note cards to prompt you for the next point; you can put quotes up on the screen rather than having to read them out (remember that if you know that all your audience have normal vision and can read – don’t automatically assume that’s the case – you don’t have to read out what’s on the Powerpoint for them, and it’s a bit insulting if you do), and having something on the screen to point at is a good reason for purposeful movement. Purposeful movement is a good way of freeing up frozen, withdrawn body language, which lots of people suffer from, and giving you more stage presence, and it’s also a way of controlling too much aimless movement and irritating mannerisms, which some other people suffer from. Thinking of other things to do which require you to move is a good idea.
Think carefully about the content of the slides: what are they there for (showing things you can’t describe well in words, reminding the audience what the main points are, prompting you what to say next, whatever..)? Once you’ve decided what the purpose of the slides is, does the content you’re planning to put on them actually support that purpose?
You can do some fancy things with PowerPoint (don’t do fancy things unless there’s some point), but most stuff can be done just as well with OHP slides, and there’s nothing wrong with taking the non-data-projector route.
Everyone should view Don McMillan on PowerPoint:


Structure, changeovers and choreography: if it’s a group presentation, you will probably be changing presenters. Match the changeovers with the structure of your story, signal them well, and think about where people are (out of the way, and with somewhere comfortable to stand/sit if they’re not presenting, appearing in the right place with the right materials when they do take over, and moving gracefully out of the spotlight when they’ve finished). Watch how they do it on Channel Four news at 7pm – where they have more changes than necessary, I think, but they handle them well.

Endings: you have to make it clear to the audience when and why you’re getting to the end – of your section, or of the presentation as a whole. Some groups had to say ‘…and that’s the end’ before the audience realised it was the end – it should be absolutely clear, without you having to say it.

Professional guidance
I talked to someone I know who has done a lot of performing, and has some professional experience directing plays and training actors, about presenting in general, and maintaining some level of ‘stage presence’ in particular. Here are his suggestions.

The first suggestion was a typical professional one – quite right, but maybe impractical in a class presentation: warm up. Get your voice working, stretch, all that stuff. Fine if you can do it, but whoever’s presenting before you won’t appreciate you doing it at the back while they’re on.

A bit more practical (sometimes) is to take some exercise – run up and down a couple of flights of stairs. Not so much as to leave you out of breath, but enough to increase your heartrate and make you warmer (if you know about some of the psychological research on the emotion/self-attribution stuff, you might be able to supply psychological reasons why this would be beneficial).

More practically, find opportunities to move as you present. Gesture at the screen, point out crucial bits, even walk over to it to emphasise fine details. Getting your body moving is good for keeping people’s attention on you, and this gives you a way of doing it which seems natural, and more importantly, can feel natural to you, so you don’t really have to think about what you’re doing: you can just do it.

Think of your presentation as a story, or a joke. There’s the scene-setting, the business, and the pay-off or punchline. This gives it a shape, a change of pace, an excuse to get animated, and natural places to pause and to emphasise things. It may not always be obvious to you just where to add emphasis, but with a bit of thought and experimentation you can usually find sensible places. A definite place to add emphasis is where you’re bringing in an important new point.
My advisor also pointed out that people usually find it easy to remember jokes and stories, so you might find the content easier to hold in your mind that way (again, good psychological reasons for this). This helps, because it’s easier to be animated if you know what you’re going to say next than if you’re striving to remember it. In a longer presentation, you might split it up into more than one story. Identify the key points in the narrative, and emphasise them as you get to them.

Look at the audience: people generally remember to do this a bit, but he pointed out that you train actors to look just over the heads of the audience, but you train presenters to actively catch people’s eye and make a direct personal contact. If you do it on a sufficiently strong and unarguable point, you may even be able to get a nod out of them, which is very encouraging for the presenter.

Be prepared to pause: one of the techniques of ‘stage presence’ is to make the audience wait just very slightly longer than they expect to for whatever you’re going to do next. If you’ve got something striking to say, you can pause just after saying it, to let it sink in. You can also do an anticipatory pause. Also, if you’re moving on to a new section, you can pause before you start it, which emphasises the shift, and also refocuses attention on you as people have to wait to see what you’re going to say next. (These are only very slight pauses, of course, but you can be more melodramatic if you’ve just told us or shown us something particularly shocking or horrible).

The last recommendation is the paradoxical one: don’t think about doing any of this. If you’re following a ‘body script’, you can seem just as stilted and limited in your movements as when you’re standing still. In fact, it might be best to practice doing it several different ways, then you will know that there are several ways you can do it, and just use whichever style seems more natural at the time.

Exam prep: how much further reading should you do?

Question on first year revision from a student:

I’m wondering if you could advise me on how much revision I should be doing. I am now using books to read over and make notes from in addition to the lecture notes. So how much more would you say is necessary for me to do in addition to revising lecture notes? I ask because I am finding some modules harder than others and perhaps would like to balance the revision evenly to give more priority to the modules I am struggling with.

That’s a good question (i.e. there isn’t a simple answer).
I’ve organised my ideas below in terms of what kind of mark each level of further reading might lead to at first year level.

Basic safe pass (50s, low/mid 60s)
I think the most important thing to go for is understanding  the basic lecture content. Two reasons for that:

  • Understanding (not just being able to repeat) the material is what we’re aiming at, so exam questions will be testing that.
  • We know from research in memory that people remember meanings better than specific details, that meaningful (i.e. understood) material is easier to remember than meaningless material, and that having a structure of understanding (a schema) makes it easier to remember new material which is related to that schema.

Now, we may be great at explaining things in lectures, so it’s always perfectly clear, and you may be great at making notes, so that you can always understand everything you’ve noted down afterwards – but i wouldn’t bet on either of those. So the first use of further reading is to read different  accounts of the lecture material – in textbooks, websites, whatever. Different people will explain stuff in different ways, and the chances are if you don’t understand one version clearly, another, different, version will work for you.
Once you’ve got a solid understanding of the main lecture material, you’re likely to be able to get a good mark in the exam (provided you can remember it in the exam and you use that understanding to actually answer the question).

Good pass (mid/high 60s)
But it’s worthwhile going further. (In the following two sections, I’ve guessed at what the basic lecture material was. If my ‘further’ examples actually were part of your basic content, then I hope you can think of equivalent examples.)
To start with, test your understanding and develop your schematic overview of the material.
For instance, if you know about the three-colour-receptor explanation of colour vision, what could you predict about different ways of being ‘colour-blind’? And why is it unlikely that people with anomalous colour vision don’t simply see in shades of grey? Then go and read up on anomalous colour vision, and see if your guesses are confirmed. Again, from what we know about memory, it’s likely that information gained as a result of active exploration like this is retained better than stuff that’s more or less passively read.

Excellent performance (70+)
Then, pick up on any extensions or complications of the main lecture material. For example, our main account of brain activity is in terms of nerve cells communicating with each other, and all the other brain structures, like glial cells, are just there to support the neurons. But you’ve probably seen some hints that people are beginning to think these other cells are also important in brain activity. OK, see if you can find any stuff about that.
The disadvantage to this ‘going further’ approach is that you’ll find that the picture gets more complicated the further you go (all this stuff is very complicated: that’s why we start out with the simple, ‘mythical’ versions to get you started) – but if you have a good basic understanding, you should be able to build the complications into your model, rather than finding them too confusing.

To go back to the original question: “I ask because I am finding some modules harder than others and perhaps would like to balance the revision evenly to give more priority to the modules I am struggling with”. I think that should be your primary guideline. If ‘struggling with‘ means ‘don’t really understand all of it‘, then the most important thing to do is to read around, at a fairly basic level, until you’re happy that you do understand the basic stuff in all the modules. Once you’ve got that basis of confidence, then it’s time to go for some more detail (and more complication).

Comments (from students: ‘I don’t get this’; or other teachers: ‘no. you’re wrong, because..’) are welcome.

Conscientiousness and curiosity contribute to academic success (who knew?)

Doing the work and being prepared to be interested in it is as important to academic success as being clever, research shows

This post is mainly a long quote from a press release about a paper in Perspectives in Psychological Science, based on “a meta-analysis, gathering the data from about 200 studies with a total of about 50,000 students.” It’s one of those cases where loads of psychological effort goes into telling you stuff you knew perfectly well anyway – but it’s always good to get some evidence.

Note that traits like ‘conscientiousness’ and ‘curiosity’ are related to/part of the Big Five personality test model, and some views of personality traits like this are that they’re pretty static – you’re born conscientious or open to experience – or not – and that’s all there is to it. Others think that it’s much more dynamic – these traits can develop out of intention and experience. Either way, if you want to be a successful student, it’s worth developing/using/faking your conscientiousness and curiosity.

Intelligence is important to academic performance, but it’s not the whole story. Everyone knows a brilliant kid who failed school, or someone with mediocre smarts who made up for it with hard work. So psychological scientists have started looking at factors other than intelligence that make some students do better than others.

One of those is conscientiousness – basically, the inclination to go to class and do your homework. People who score high on this personality trait tend to do well in school. “It’s not a huge surprise if you think of it, that hard work would be a predictor of academic performance,” says Sophie von Stumm of the University of Edinburgh in the UK. She co-wrote the new paper with Benedikt Hell of the University of Applied Sciences Northwestern Switzerland and Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic of Goldsmiths University of London.

Sophie von Stumm and her coauthors wondered if curiosity might be another important factor. “Curiosity is basically a hunger for exploration,” von Stumm says. “If you’re intellectually curious, you’ll go home, you’ll read the books. If you’re perceptually curious, you might go traveling to foreign countries and try different foods.” Both of these, she thought, could help you do better in school.

The researchers performed a meta-analysis, gathering the data from about 200 studies with a total of about 50,000 students. They found that curiosity did, indeed, influence academic performance. In fact, it had quite a large effect, about the same as conscientiousness. When put together, conscientiousness and curiosity had as big an effect on performance as intelligence.

I couldn’t find the original paper online (the Medical News Today version of the press release doesn’t give details, and it may still be in press), but here’s the web page of one of the authors:, which references more of her work.

Not just psychology: how not to start an essay

Should you start an essay with a definition?

The simple answer is NO, but Daniel Chandler, an excellent communicator from Aberystwyth University (who has just edited a dictionary, so you would think he’d be very pro-definition), recently posted on Facebook:

Despite all my warnings, a 3rd year student is still starting an essay with definitions of key terms drawn from Wikipedia and miscellaneous online dictionaries. Argh!!!

– but then followed it up with some useful advice:

Unless the term is highly contested (when there is no single agreed definition), key terms do not need to be defined (it can be assumed that the reader knows) but an understanding of them needs to be demonstrated by the ways in which they are used in the essay.
Good psychology suggests making the reader’s first experience of a text in any medium arresting and interesting. It would be possible to begin an academic essay with some dramatically contradictory definitions from authoritative sources (as long as the subsequent essay explored this further). The let-down is the essay that begins by using low-grade sources to define terms about which there is little disagreement or with which the reader can be expected to be thoroughly familiar.

Note that nearly all this post is not All My Own Work, but it’s not plagiarism, because I’ve clearly stated my source, and clearly identified the words that aren’t mine (by using italics: you might think double quotes would have been clearer). However, you might count it as a pretty poor piece of work on my part, because it’s all Daniel’s points, not mine.

Direct instruction or find out for yourself?

From Medical News Today:

“It turns out that there is a “double-edged sword” to pedagogy: Explicit instruction makes children less likely to engage in spontaneous exploration and discovery. A study by MIT researchers and colleagues compared the behavior of children given a novel toy under four different conditions, finding that children expressly taught one of its functions played with the toy for less time and discovered fewer things to do with it than children in the other three scenarios.”

The MNT article gives a summary of the research (presenting children with novel, multi-function toys and seeing how many functions they find/use).
The full paper is available at:
Perhaps we shouldn’t tell our students so much stuff….