Friday, January 14, 2011

Fonts of Knowledge?

Says LiveScience:
Want to remember what this article says? Maybe you should read it in Comic Sans.

Okay, I'm better. What are they talking about?
Fonts, or styles of typeface, that are relatively difficult to read (including the much-maligned Comic Sans) help people learn new information, according to a new study. The font effect works both in lab experiments and in real classrooms, perhaps by forcing students to work harder to process the information.
Dieman-Yauman, his faculty mentor Daniel Oppenheimer and their colleagues published the results in the January issue of the journal Cognition. Keeping with the theme of the research, they titled their paper, "Fortune favors the bold (and the italicized): Effects of disfluency on educational outcomes." Diemand-Yauman was the lead author.

People generally assume that the easier it is to learn something, the easier it will be to remember the information later. But education research has shown that in many cases, it’s the struggle that makes information stick.
Dieman-Yauman and his fellow researchers were interested in whether switching from easy-to-read fonts to more-difficult ones would create a desirable difficulty and improve learning. They began by presenting information about three made-up alien species to 28 volunteers. Each alien species had a strange name, such as "pangerish" or "norgletti," along with seven physical characteristics. Volunteers got a list of alien names and characteristics and had 90 seconds to memorize which characteristic matched which species.

Some of the lists were typed in an easy-to-read font, Arial. Others, the disfluent lists, were typed in either Comic Sans MS or Bodini MT.

After the 90 seconds was up, the researchers distracted the volunteers for 15 minutes, then tested them on their new alien knowledge. Turns out you want your alien hunters to study up in Comic Sans: The scores for those who read the disfluent lists averaged 14 percentage points higher than those who read the list in Arial (86.5 versus 72.8 percent, the researchers found).
Trouble is, Comic Sans is not an especially difficult typeface to read--at least not visually. Sure, it makes me vomit, which is distracting when trying to comprehend something, but it's legible.

Anyway, the researchers then took their experiment to the real world...well, if high school can be considered the real world:
The researchers recruited teachers in six subjects — advanced placement English, honors English, honors physics, regular physics, honors U.S. history, and honors chemistry — from a public school in Ohio. Each teacher sent copies of his or her classroom presentations and worksheets to Dieman-Yauman to be transferred to difficult-to-read fonts.

He and his colleagues chose three difficult fonts based on preliminary studies: the crowded and boxy Haettenschweiler, the cursive-like Monotype Corsiva, and the bubbly Comic Sans Italicized. When there was no electronic version available to alter, the researchers made blurry copies of the worksheets instead.
The students who learned with difficult fonts got better grades and didn't seem to notice the font switch – in surveys after the study, the researchers found no differences in how students liked the material based on font. Novelty could play a role in the results, the researchers wrote, but the novelty of the fonts — which weren't too outlandish compared to regular textbook fonts — should have worn off over the course of the experiment.
As for Comic Sans, this famous photo pretty much sums it up:

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