Blurred clarity

Dec 20 2010 by Brian Amble Print This Article

Making learning materials as legible and digestible as possible would seem to be a matter of common sense. Or is it? Because according to research written up on the British Psychological Society's Research Digest blog, making learning materials more difficult to read can actually improve students' performance.

Researchers at Princeton University made this counter-intuitive discovery through experiments in which participants were asked to learn seven features associated with three alien species. Half were presented with material written in clear 16-point Ariel font, the other half learned from materials written either in 12-point Comic Sans or 12-point Bodoni.

Fifteen minutes later the participants were tested and the key finding was that those who learned from the harder-to-read fonts answered 86.5 per cent of questions correctly, compared with the 72.8 per cent success rate achieved by the participants who learned from the clearer font.

Similar results were obtained from experiments carried out at a high school in Ohio.

The reason for the difference appears to be that when people find something easy to read, they take that as a sign that they've mastered it. But harder-to-read fonts provoke a feeling of lack of mastery and encourage deeper processing.

Connor Diemand-Yauman, who lead the research, said that the findings could be the tip of the ice-berg as regards using cognitive findings to boost educational practice.

"If a simple change of font can significantly increase student performance, one can only imagine the number of beneficial cognitive interventions waiting to be discovered," they said.

"Fluency demonstrates how small interventions have the potential to make big improvements in the performance of our students and education system as a whole."

Older Comments

Far be it from me to cast aspersions on the methodology used, but how do we know that it is the clarity of the font that affected the students' performance? The 'clearer' font was not only larger, but actually a different font. Did the students respond to the fact that they were reading the information presented in something other than boring old ariel?

And anyway, to extrapolate from this finding that learning can be improved by making the materials difficult to see (or written in a foreign language, or without punctuation etc.) is taking things a bit too far. Maybe the students really did learn better from the smaller font, but did it take longer? What was the cost in terms of effort and fatigue? Might students be wasting time, energy and effort on learning facts and ideas which they would otherwise have known instinctively were of no importance anyway? ('Alien species')

The implication of this work is clear, however: text books will have to be revised so that the really important ideas shrivel on the page into tiny blurred print, while the simple stuff is printed in clear bold type.

David UK

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