Funny fonts may not lead to better learning

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Back in 2011, there was a flurry of excitement when a group of researchers found that students recalled more information if it was presented in a hard to read font, such as something fancy in italics, than if it was presented in a traditional, easy to read font like Times New Roman.

The finding fed interest in the concept, developed by Robert Bjork and colleagues, of ‘desirable difficulties’. In short, the idea is that by having to engage more cognitive processes to read the font, we learn the material better.

This view is in apparent conflict with findings from cognitive load theory, findings that generally suggest that we should reduce any unnecessary cognitive load.

Since 2011, there have been numerous attempts to replicate this effect. Now, a meta-analysis has been published that attempts to draw this evidence together. The findings are mixed, with no overall effect on basic recall or transfer for ‘perceptual disfluency’ as it is known to researchers. However, it does pretty reliably increase learning time and reduce learners’ perceptions of their own learning.

It is tempting to leave the issue there as an effect that has failed replication, but I think it might be worth introducing another idea from cognitive load theory, that of element interactivity.

Element interactivity essentially describes the complexity of a learning task. Cognitive load theory effects have been demonstrated reliably when element interactivity is relatively high, such as when students are learning to solve algebra problems. On the other hand, desirable difficulties effects have mainly been demonstrated on tasks such as learning the names of state capital cities, something that would be relatively low in element interactivity / complexity. It would be interesting to see how effects for perceptual disfluency map against the complexity of the learning task.


8 thoughts on “Funny fonts may not lead to better learning

  1. This is a fascinating area of research, Greg. In regard to teaching children to read and spell, if a teacher is presenting a phonics lesson for the first time to a class of children just entering school, my thoughts are that element interactivity is a big issue. here’s why:
    Granted, teachers present phonics lessons in different ways but take the following example: We begin by teaching the sound-spelling correspondences in the word ‘mat’ by presenting the spellings jumbled up and out of order on a whiteboard and we draw three lines underneath. [So, at this point, the children are looking at three spellings on a whiteboard with three lines drawn underneath.] We can assume that for L1 speakers the word ‘mat’ is already in their spoken vocabulary. However, children, are also going to be presented with the concept that sounds in our speech can be represented by (in this case) one-letter spellings – a concept which will follow procedural understanding.
    Now, drawing a finger under the lines, we say to the children, “I’m going to say the word ‘mat’. Listen carefully as I say the word and tell me what you hear when my finger is under this (pointing to the first line) line. Mmmmmmat.” Children will easily be able to say that the sound they hear at this point is /m/ and we have established the link between /m/ and the spelling . If we do that with all three sound-spelling correspondences, we have a great deal of interactivity taking place.
    Some children will never before have established the link between the spellings and the sounds. The children are also looking at a presentation which is new; some are looking at spellings and linking them to sounds in a way they’ve never done before; they are having to segment the sounds in the word; and, after completing the building of the word, they have to blend the sounds together to give the whole word ‘mat’.
    If, in addition, we deliberately present children with fonts that are difficult to decipher, we add considerably to, for what is for four-year-olds, an already heavily weighted cognitive load. If, in addition, we distort the font by making it too small or too large, we run the risk of adding to the complexity of the task. And this is not to mention all the other bells and whistles some teachers insist will make the activity more ‘pleasurable’, yet add nothing to the what the teacher is trying to achieve: the link between a limited number of sounds and spellings.
    For anyone interested, I’ve written a post describing the whole lesson here:

    1. When you mentioned L1 speakers, it looked as if you might soon go to LO (other) speakers and mention that explicit phonics instruction, regardless of the font, is sound grunting, unless you can connect the word to something. Which should young children master first, word calling or some vocabulary?

      1. I thought it was obvious that if the children are building a word, the teacher would be making sure the word is within the children’s spoken vocabulary. Using prompts of one sort or another is perfectly sufficient – as we find in so many of the schools in UK which have large numbers of children who are ESOL.

  2. Greg,
    Have you looked at research on sports training. I have not seen papers on this but have seen trainers using a technique of deliberate mental overload to get people past the point of conscious thinking about the activity. This has to happen after the conscious part is well known but is a deliberate attempt to inhibit conscious thinking on part of the activity. The point of it is to speed up the process of the activity being automatic so that conscious activity can be directed at another concern.

  3. I’ve read Colvin, Coyle and Syed, and don’t remember a reference to deliberate mental overload. There is, however, a chapter ‘Expertise in Sport: Specificity, Plasticity, and Adaptability in High-Performance Athletes’ in the new edition [got it yesterday! 😉 ] of Ericsson et al. I’ll see if they talk about it.
    The idea though may have some merit: when I’m teaching a student as an intervention, I find that they tend to make the most substantial gains in fluency the last twenty minutes of an hour-long lesson – when they’re really beginning to get tired. Teachers sometimes comment on this when I’m doing a one-to-one demon for colleagues.

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