Fonts, Disfluency, Learning


In an attempt to improve my visual design skills, I was exploring the use of different typefaces. Much to my surprise, I stumbled on research that indicates that using difficult-to-read fonts improves retention of information. Wow. I didn’t see that coming.

Typically, we (instructional designers) talk about ways to decrease cognitive load, not increase it. Yet, the article seems to suggest otherwise. As with all things teaching & learning, the easy “decrease cognitive load” answer is not the entire answer nor is it that simple. Honestly, teaching and instructional design are not for the fainthearted.

“…research has shown that instinct can be deceiving and lead to educational strategies that are detrimental to learners …[for example]…many education researchers and practitioners believe that reducing extraneous cognitive load is always beneficial for the learner.”

Diemand-Yauman, et al., 2010

The point of this post, however, is not to debate our cherished mantras about reducing cognitive load. The topic is huge and complex. But, we can look more deeply into this one teeny tiny corner of the topic of fonts, disfluency, and learning.  I mean, don’t you have tons of questions? I know I do. For example:

  • Since we’re talking about subjective disfluency, can we become habituated to the difficult font such that it no longer causes disfluency? If so,
    • how much info can be conveyed with the difficult font before it isn’t difficult?
    • will the amount of info be best as lists or narratives?
    • would it be better to include the important info in the difficult to read font and keep everything else in a more easy-to-read font?
  • Which fonts would be considered difficult?
    • cursive fonts? fonts meant to mimic hand-printing? funky fonts?
  • Given that some organizations insist on branding learning materials with specific fonts, colors, etc. is there a similarly easy way to achieve disfluency?

My list could go on… But, I think that I’ve generated enough questions to keep me busy planning some basic research. Anyone want to collaborate with me on this?


More on disfluency in general
The concept of disfluency impacts more than just learning.  Take a moment and see if you can find references to disfluency in areas of concern to you (marketing, branding, idea management, decision making, behavior, etc.).  Or, check out this conversation with Adam Alter, a well-known researcher in this field.

Read the cited research
Diemand-Yauman, C., et al. Fortune favors the Bold (and the Italicized): Effects of disfluency on educational outcomes. Cognition (2010), doi:10.1016/j.cognition.2010.09.012 Retrieved July 12, 2017.

Read one author’s take on the research
Lang, J. M. (2012, June 3). The Benefits of Making It Harder to Learn. The Chronicle of Higher Education. Retrieved July 12, 2017.

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