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For better learning,change the font

Researchers have found that people retain significantly more material when they study it in a font that is unfamiliar and hard to read

Written by New York Times |
April 24, 2011 3:25:40 am

Trick question: Is it easier to remember a new fact if it appears in normal type or in big,bold letters? The answer is neither. Font size has no effect on memory,even though most people assume that bigger is better. But font style does. New research finds that people retain significantly more material—whether science,history or language—when they study it in a font that is not only unfamiliar but also hard to read.

Psychologists have long known that people’s instincts about how well they’ve learned a subject are often way off. The feel of a study session can be a poor reflection of its nutritional value: Concepts that seem perfectly clear become fuzzy at exam time,and those that are hard to grasp click into place when it counts. In recent years,researchers have begun to clarify why this is so,and in some cases how to correct it. The findings are relevant nowadays,experts say. “So much of the learning that we do now is unsupervised,on our own,” said Robert A. Bjork,a psychologist at the University of California,“that it’s crucial to be able to monitor that learning accurately; that is,to know how well we know what we know,so that we avoid fooling ourselves.”

Mistakes in judging what we know—in metacognition,as it’s known—are partly rooted in simple biases. For instance,most people assume when studying that newly learned facts will long be remembered and further practice won’t make much difference. These beliefs are subconscious studies find,even though people know better when they stop to think about it. Yet overconfidence also develops as a result of the brain’s natural tendency to find shortcuts—and to quickly forget that it used them.

A cognitive quality known as fluency measures how easy a piece of information is to process. The brain automatically associates perceptual fluency,or ease of storage,with retrieval fluency,ease of recall. This is a good rule of thumb for lots of new facts: some people are especially good at remembering directions,others are better with names,still others with sports and jokes. But it’s not as good a guide when studying difficult concepts that don’t fall easily into a person’s areas of expertise or interest. “For example,we know if you study something twice,in spaced sessions,it’s harder to process the material the second time,and people think it’s counterproductive,” said Nate Kornell,a psychologist at Williams College. “But the opposite is true: You learn more,even though it feels harder. Fluency is playing a trick on judgement.”

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A study to be published this year in the journal Psychological Science,led by Kornell,shows how strong this effect can be. Participants studied a list of words printed in fonts of varying sizes and judged how likely they would be to remember them on a later test. The study found that font size made no difference and practice paid off. And so it goes,researchers say,with most study sessions: difficulty builds mental muscle and ease builds only confidence. In a recent study published in the journal Cognition,psychologists at Princeton and Indiana University had 28 men and women read about three species of aliens,each of which had seven characteristics,like “has blue eyes”. Half the participants studied the text in 16-point Arial font,and the others in 12-point Comic Sans MS or 12-point Bodoni MT,both of which are relatively unfamiliar. After a short break,the participants took an exam,and those who had studied in the harder-to-read fonts outperformed the others on the test,85.5 per cent to 72.8 per cent,on average. To test the approach in the classroom,the researchers conducted a large experiment involving 222 students at a public school in Chesterland,Ohio. One group had all its supplementary study materials,in English,history and science courses,reset in an unusual font,like Monotype Corsiva. The others studied as before. After the lessons were completed,the researchers evaluated the tests and found that those who’d been squinting at the stranger typefaces did better than the others in all the classes—particularly in physics.

“The reason that the unusual fonts are effective is that it causes us to think more deeply about the material,” a co-author of the study,Daniel M. Oppenheimer,a psychologist at Princeton,wrote in an e-mail. “But we are capable of thinking deeply without being subjected to unusual fonts. Think of it this way,you can’t skim material in a hard-to-read font,so putting text in a hard-to-read font will force you to read more carefully.” Then again,so will raw effort,he and other researchers said. Concentrating harder. Working through problem sets without glancing at the answers. And studying with classmates who test one another.BENEDICT CAREY

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