Does reading a book that is faded, printed using a harder-to-read font actually help you learn better? That doesn’t make sense. If you have taken our ALS1010 Course, Learning to Learn Better, you will know that one of the curious findings in the science of learning is the concept of cognitive disfluency. When we learn something, we need to process it first before we store it in our memory. Some information is effortless to process, while other items take more work for us to make sense. Cognitive disfluency refers to the finding that when we work harder to understand information in a meaningful way, that extra mental effort results in remembering that information for more extended periods.
This finding is consistent with other experiments which revealed that active learning, when the mind processes information in a “deeper” way, results in longer memory retention. Simply listening to a lecture or reading a book is considered passive learning at a “superficial” level. To process that information in a “deeper” way, you must try to understand it, apply it to solve problems, evaluate it by asking further questions about it, or use it to create new ideas and theories, etc.
There are several published studies confirming the concept of Cognitive Disfluency. (Alter, Oppenheimer, Epley, & Eyre, 2007; Diemand-Yauman, Oppenheimer, & Vaughan, 2011; Weltman & Eakin, 2014) They find that when students read a text presented with a font that is harder to read, then they remember that information better. Some have advocated using this technique for learning better. A specific font for computers, called “Sans Forgetica” was created by educational researchers in Australia to take advantage of this principle.
By RMIT Australia – http://sansforgetica.rmit/, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=85462385
While this font received quite a bit of coverage from interested press and bloggers when it was first released, the studies that first evaluated the efficacy of this font for learning were never published for peer review. Recently, another team evaluating this new font found that while students in their research study did find Sans Forgetica harder to read, they could not replicate the finding that their students reading the dysfluent text remembered it better. (Taylor, Sanson, Burnell, Wade, & Garry, 2020)
Take Home Message
Although we discuss cognitive disfluency in our Learning to Learn Better class, we make it a point not to recommend it as a study technique. In fact, when we try to replicate the cognitive disfluency studies in our class, we get mixed results. Sometimes our students remember better if reading a hard to read font, but it is not consistent. Remember that research journals generally publish only positive results, so there is a bias against studies that demonstrate when things don’t have an effect!
You can imagine if the dysfluent text is too difficult to read, it can frustrate the learner and impede the processing of that information. If it is too easy to read, then the dysfluent font makes no difference in learning. So, the disfluency must be “just right.” Different learners will struggle differently reading the same text. Even for the same learner, reading the same text, this effect will vary over time. If the reader is tired, they’ll be more frustrated and stop reading the text compared to times when they are fresh and have more patience reading a disfluent text. This variability makes it hard for learners to incorporate in a learning plan, there are too many factors to consider.
We discuss Cognitive Disfluency in our class because it is a good example of how optimal learning is often counter intuitive. Learning more about how we best learn will correct many of these false, but natural assumptions. However, there are other more powerful and less complicated ways to learn better than changing the font of the text we read. When we try to optimize how we study, we need to strategize carefully; not all that we understand about the science of learning can be easily translated into actual better learning by students. (Kühl & Eitel, 2016)
Alter, A. L., Oppenheimer, D. M., Epley, N., & Eyre, R. N. (2007). Overcoming intuition: metacognitive difficulty activates analytic reasoning. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 136(4), 569.
Diemand-Yauman, C., Oppenheimer, D. M., & Vaughan, E. B. (2011). Fortune favors the: Effects of disfluency on educational outcomes. Cognition, 118(1), 114-118. doi:10.1016/j.cognition.2010.09.012
Kühl, T., & Eitel, A. (2016). Effects of disfluency on cognitive and metacognitive processes and outcomes. Metacognition and Learning, 11(1), 1-13.
Taylor, A., Sanson, M., Burnell, R., Wade, K. A., & Garry, M. (2020). Disfluent difficulties are not desirable difficulties: the (lack of) effect of Sans Forgetica on memory. Memory, 1-8.
Weltman, D., & Eakin, M. (2014). Incorporating unusual fonts and planned mistakes in study materials to increase business student focus and retention. INFORMS Transactions on Education, 15(1), 156-165.
About the Author
Professor Robert Kamei
Bob Kamei is a professor at the National University of Singapore and Duke University and is passionate about helping people learn better.