Arial, Times New Roman, Helvetica, Comic Sans… these are the fonts we most commonly use. Some of us may not give a second thought to which ones we use in our work and may even believe that making the text bold or larger will make it more likely to be remembered. Although the research on fonts is minimal, what we do know is that font size has no effect on memory and learning – instead, the font’s design does.
So, how do fonts make a difference in learning?
What is Disfluency?
Disfluency refers to experiencing some difficulty when using a cognitive process. There are many different variations of disfluency. However, it can be produced by simply using fonts that are a little more difficult to read. This may sound like a bad thing, but disfluent fonts can actually stop the reader from getting too comfortable with what they are used to and force them to put more effort into the work at hand.
We often mistake something we read easily for something we understood. However, a little bit of struggle whilst learning can prove to be really useful. If a student experiences difficulty when trying to complete a cognitive operation, they may process the information more deeply. This can lead to a better and more careful understanding and contribute positively to effective learning.
What Does the Research Say?
One study found that when students were given a list of words in different sizes to learn, they were confident they would remember the ones that were in large print. When asked to judge what would help memory, the majority chose font size over repeated practice. However, they had misjudged the effectiveness of a larger print – after testing, it was found that the font size made no difference and instead those who had practiced more were more successful.
Instead of changing font sizes in an attempt to help students along in their learning, teachers should consider making other changes to learning material that can lead to significant improvements in academic progress. Evidence suggests that retention can be improved by making study material harder to learn. Essentially, a more focused cognitive engagement can lead to deeper processing. This then enhances encoding in the memory stores and allows individuals to retrieve information easier.
Research shows that participants who were tested in a laboratory setting remembered information better when it was in harder-to-read fonts. The research was replicated in a high school classroom where students were divided into two conditions: disfluent and control. The disfluent condition consisted of worksheets that were in 3 different fonts; all more difficult to read than the control worksheets. Those in this condition scored higher on the classroom assessment. This demonstrates how students may be more likely to succeed academically if they experience some struggle whilst learning.
A learning task that requires some effort and provides a challenge is a desirable difficulty. These types of task are known to improve long-term performance.
There are many other different ways that this disfluency can be achieved such as interleaving. This revision technique involves switching between topics. Whilst this practice is still uncommon, we know from previous research that it is more effective than blocking, which is studying one topic in its entirety before moving on.
Similarly, fonts can help students make strides in their learning. However, teachers must make sure that there is a balance, and that the text is not so difficult to read that it undecipherable. If students find the font too complex to follow, then it is unlikely that they will benefit from improved retention and a deeper understanding. Test out a few fonts with your students and see which ones they respond best to.
One thing to consider...
With about 10% of the UK population being dyslexic, it is important to keep in mind that the above strategies could actually make learning harder for some of your students. Find a balance to avoid alienating some learners.
If you're interested in finding out about research in that area, we wrote a blog about how to use fonts to help dyslexic students.
As is mentioned in the research above, a little bit of a struggle can help further academic development. More specifically, font style does make a difference in learning. When something is more difficult to read, we put in more effort and take longer to process it. As a result, we often develop a deeper understanding of the information which helps enhance our memory and improve retrieval. This contributes positively to academic success.
Whilst changing the font of your learning materials may sound like strange advice, your students may be eternally grateful.