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Education Science

Hard-to-Read Fonts Improve Learning 175

Posted by timothy
from the slashdot-design-philosophy-revealed dept.
arkenian writes "Difficult-to-read fonts make for better learning, according to scientists. The finding is about to be published in the international journal Cognition. Researchers at Princeton University employed volunteers to learn made-up information about different types of aliens — and found that those reading harder fonts recalled more when tested 15 minutes later. The article goes on to note a second test in a real school environment: 'Keen to see if their findings actually worked in practice, the Princeton University team then tested their results on 222 students aged between 15 and 18 at a secondary school in Chesterfield, Ohio.'... 'Students given the harder-to-read materials scored higher in their classroom assessments than those in the control group. This was the case across a range of subjects — from English, to Physics to History.'"
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Hard-to-Read Fonts Improve Learning

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  • Comic Sans (Score:2, Informative)

    by zonker (1158)

    But Comic Sans still makes you look stupid.

  • This does seem counter-intuitive: when I lay out text I try to make it as easy to read as possible to avoid getting in the way of absorbing the content...

    Rgds

    Damon

    • by drinkypoo (153816) <martin.espinoza@gmail.com> on Saturday October 23, 2010 @04:29AM (#33994878) Homepage Journal

      I think it's obvious (heh heh) that it forces you to think about the content in order to read it, when using a font which requires no conscious thought to process results in more flow with less processing and thus less retention. Perhaps future systems will sense the user's level of interest and change fonts dynamically to keep them learning.

      • by DamonHD (794830)

        Now there's a disturbing thought! B^>

        Rgds

        Damon

        • by rts008 (812749) on Saturday October 23, 2010 @05:33AM (#33995074) Journal

          Pay no attention to 'WindWraith'. You're doing it right.

          *shakes fist at 'WindWraith' for discouraging good behavior/mindset*

          I envy youth and their good eyesight. Hell, I miss my own good eyesight when I was younger!

          As an 'older than dirt, had to fight dinosaurs on my ten mile trek[one way] UPHILL, in a blizzard/sandstorm- both ways! to school everyday' crowd, I appreciate your efforts and way of thinking about web page design.

          As an avid reader, I appreciate good text fonts both in real paper books, and various forms of e-books.
          Tri-focal lenses, macular degeneration, and just plain old age changes your perspective and outlook!

          I frequently read some comments here regarding screen resolution[and similar], and am struck with both amusement and envy. I seem to ask myself EVERY time two questions anymore:
          How do they even see/distinguish crap that small?
          Why are they going through that hassle?
          Damn, I'm REALLY getting old!

          BTW, if you are reading this reply, 'WindWraith', please take the comment as 'tongue-in-cheek' humour/sarcasm.
          You do provide a valid and insightful comment about memories, IMHO.

          Oh yeah, obligatory...
          Hey you young punks, get off my lawn!

      • I think it's obvious (heh heh) that it forces you to think about the content in order to read it

        This is why I program exclusively in brainfuck [wikipedia.org] and ObjectiveC.

      • by lul_wat (1623489)
        >>Perhaps future systems will sense the user's level of interest and change fonts dynamically to keep them learning.

        TO THE PATENT OFFICE!
      • by ultranova (717540)

        I think it's obvious (heh heh) that it forces you to think about the content in order to read it, when using a font which requires no conscious thought to process results in more flow with less processing and thus less retention. Perhaps future systems will sense the user's level of interest and change fonts dynamically to keep them learning.

        And perhaps my future computer program marketed to college kids will forcefully change all fonts back to Times New Roman, through OCR if need be.

    • Makes sense actually, the more effort you use on it, the easier for you to remember.
      It's like you don't remember all your trips to your job except that one time you had a stomachache or were very sleepy or stuff like that.
      "Damn, this whole text about was a pain to read!"

    • by Kilrah_il (1692978) on Saturday October 23, 2010 @05:04AM (#33994982)

      Because it seems counter-intuitive, I really liked the following sentence:

      ...Keen to see if their findings actually worked in practice..."

      Often times we see studies done in labs and, because it doesn't look reasonable to us, we quickly dismiss it by saying "Well, it would never work in real life." Here, at least, they tried it in real life. It's not a long-term study, so there are still shortcomings, but it's better than the usual Social Studies experiments.

      • by hedwards (940851)
        This sounds like a matter of screwing over the segment of the population that already has a hard time reading to benefit the rest that aren't having any trouble. This would be a lot more impressive if it actually targeted the people who had trouble in the first place.
    • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

      by dintech (998802)

      Time to format those TPS reports with wing-dings...

  • you'll be called a dingbat.
  • Long term effect? (Score:5, Interesting)

    by Anonymous Coward on Saturday October 23, 2010 @04:27AM (#33994862)

    I'd like to know the long term effect of this. What if the brain develops a better comprehension of the hard-to-read fonts, rendering all the re-printing meaningless?

    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by hedwards (940851)
      The long term effect is to ruin students ability to learn as you have to actually read it correctly first. Sure they retain the information, but they don't retain what's on the paper, they retain what they think the paper says. Which isn't always the same thing. All this is going to do is cause folks with what was a relatively minor learning disorder to have a really tough time.
      • by T Murphy (1054674)
        They imply that changing the fonts is simply one way to force the reader to pay a bit more attention, instead of doing the reading equivalent of "in one ear, out the other". They don't intend this to be a one-size-fits-all solution, just an easy one to implement and test.
    • Indeed. Try reading some illuminated manuscript. Assuming you know the language already, and you know the idioms of the day and common abbreviations, you'd still have a hard time reading it. And yet scholars are really pretty good at reading that stuff.

      Heck, go back 150 years to some engineering documentation. It's pretty hard to read, sometimes.

      Even reading something your parents or grandparents wrote a few decades ago can be difficult, yet it was their natural handwriting.

  • by Barny (103770) <bakadamage-slashdot@yahoo.com> on Saturday October 23, 2010 @04:27AM (#33994864) Homepage Journal

    Lets just write all text books in captchas.

    • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

      by sqldr (838964)
      I'm sorry, but typing one word in to get at pr0n is hard enough work. If you want me to type in the entirety of "death of a salesman" or "the Da Vinci code" then I'm leaving the internet.
      • by Barny (103770)

        Forget typing it, the poor lil bastards have to try and read it, line after line.

        If this information is really correct then that will make them all geniuses.

        • It's not correct.

          "MedlinePlus and the National Institutes of Health define dyslexia as "a reading disability resulting from the inability to process graphic symbols".[20]"

          s0 Y0u hAVE g0T t0 bE kIDdINg mE tHAT A sCRAmbLED foNT HElps YOu t0 lEARN.

          • by Culture20 (968837)

            It's not correct.

            "MedlinePlus and the National Institutes of Health define dyslexia as "a reading disability resulting from the inability to process graphic symbols".[20]"

            s0 Y0u hAVE g0T t0 bE kIDdINg mE tHAT A sCRAmbLED foNT HElps YOu t0 lEARN.

            I think the point is that it helps someone focus. When they see a font they're used to (or hear a familiar voice), it's easy to attempt to function on auto-pilot while really thinking about something else. When faced with something new (but familiar), the brain needs more focus, and a double-check to make sure that the signal was interpreted correctly, so you're thinking about the message to make sure you heard/read correctly. I wonder if making people wear earmuffs or noise cancellation headgear would i

            • IANAScientist, but this still feels like one of those "flawed studies" that someone meta-reported on lately. To me the distinction feels something like if it's a *clear* cool variant, it would help you focus, but if it's obfuscating, it increases Teal Deer effects as well as basic comprehension problems. I completely hated my calculus class with the chinese grad student. Awesome young guy, but his accent was unbelieveable. However, I overcame a lifetime of not being able to navigate within 2 years of listen

              • by Culture20 (968837)
                I bet there's got to be a sweet-spot, otherwise it would make sense to publish history books with different languages per page. Just different enough to make you re-read some things (and think about whether you read something correctly), but not bad enough to cause someone to read one word at a time, ignoring sentence meanings.
            • by ultranova (717540)

              When they see a font they're used to (or hear a familiar voice), it's easy to attempt to function on auto-pilot while really thinking about something else.

              And when you're reading "death of a salesman" or any other "classic", that's the right way to do it: in from one ear, out from another, then go consult the Internet on what interpretations you're supposed to regurgitate to get a good number.

              On the other hand, if you're reading physics or some other real subject, there's enough formulas to force your atte

      • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

        by pjt33 (739471)

        I scared that you think "The da Vinci Code" is a textbook, or even something which might be used in English Literature classes. Very scared.

        • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

          You obviously haven't been in a public school English class recently. The good teachers are still good, but then you've got the "fresh from school and wanting to seem hip" teachers that will have you read something that's popular but substance-less to try to connect with you on your level, and you've also got the absolute idiot teachers who will have you read it and then write an essay on it so that they can finally understand the plots themselves. In case you think this is a total joke, the teacher who ta
          • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

            by liquiddark (719647)
            Trying to get people to connect with literature on their own level is the very definition of a good English teacher, at least in the pre-grad-school-prep phase of english language study. If you can't understand the subject under study on your own terms there is literally no point in studying it for other reasons.
            • Agreed, but that's best accomplished by having the students read goodliterature that they connect with, possibly with the help of the teacher. Pride and prejudice is a great book as long as you can understand what's going on. If a teacher is going to have the students read a novel about relationships they can have the students read that one and bridge the cultural divide rather than have them read a terrible novel that nobody will remember in five years and help them appreciate the classics at the same time
              • That's the best case. It's also not the normal case. Even those of us who love literature and try very hard to connect to it do not do well with literature from more than a hundred years ago, with a very limited set of exceptions. I love Moby Dick, but I find most of Dickens' novels almost unreadable, for example. But you hand me just about any novel from the last 30 years and I'll be able to get through it, and even if its themes are less universal it will almost certainly benefit from that hundred ext
              • by Haeleth (414428)

                Something doesn't have to be old to be good. There are plenty of good, well-written modern books that are vastly more relevant to a modern American child than Jane Austen's novels about people living a different kind of life in a different country in a different century.

                However, "The Da Vinci Code" is not a good book. It is extremely poorly written. Things like that have no place in schools.

            • If the student's own level is "Candy" or "The Anarchist Cookbook", he should be introduced to something better.
              • Are those works incompatible with the basic skills required of an English student? Because if they are not, and if they are not utterly devoid of social, political, and personal themes and context, then perhaps you shouldn't spit on them quite so readily.
        • by sqldr (838964)
          Sorry.. you're right.

          To quote Stephen Fry, "it's absolute arse gravy".

          The only people who should be forced to read it are the catholic church, just to see how offended they get.
          • by sqldr (838964)
            For our american readers, you're probably aware of Hugh Laurie who plays the part of an alcoholic doctor in "house"

            The two people used to be an intellectual comedy >duo in a British show called "Fry and Laurie".
            Fry is an intellect, manic depressive,rational gay bloke, and has more followers on twitter than anybody else in the world

            He also played the part of the Duke of Wellington in the 3rd series of "blackadder" which has been shown in America, but apparently you didn't find it funny. Winston Chur
            • by nschubach (922175)

              Pedant: He's not alcoholic. He was addicted to pain killers.

            • by rjstanford (69735)

              Eddie Izzard, however, once described us as being two nations separated by a common language and a lot of fish. Far more complete.

              Don't forget _Peter's Friend's_, btw, another great Laurie/Fry collaboration movie (also including Brannaugh and many other great actors - and Tony Slattery).

            • First season looked pretty boring... but it got better I believe.
              • by sqldr (838964)
                yeah.. the first season was written solely by Ben Elton. After that, Richard Curtis joined in and it became great.

                Sir! The peasants are revolting!
                You're revolting, Baldrick.
        • by Jartan (219704)

          Sounds like an improvement to me. Better than "The Grapes of Wrath" for sure. At least your average high school student might actually READ "The da Vinci Code".

          • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

            by Culture20 (968837)

            Sounds like an improvement to me. Better than "The Grapes of Wrath" for sure. At least your average high school student might actually READ "The da Vinci Code".

            But your average high school student might actually BELIEVE "The da Vinci Code". I'd rather have them believe "The Grapes of Wrath".

        • Re: (Score:2, Interesting)

          by Hatta (162192)

          Can you honestly say it's any worse than the shit they actually try to pass off as worthwhile in English class? Moby Dick? The Scarlet Letter?

          • by pjt33 (739471)

            I'm trying to remember what we read in English classes. Some Beowulf (with translation into Modern English), some Chaucer, lots of Shakespeare, Silas Marner, To Kill a Mockingbird. And I can honestly say that what I've read by Dan Brown (which doesn't include The da Vinci Code, because I quit after a few paragraphs) was definitely worse.

          • Modern popular fiction (excluding romance novels) is pretty good, with popularity being a fair measure of entertainment value. If it's modern and mandatory reading in an English class, it's pretty much guaranteed to be crap pushing some PC viewpoint. Perhaps the most annoying aspect of fairly good modern fiction is the unnecessary use of rude language.

            Modern writers have largely benefitted from the mistakes of hundreds of years of fiction. Old books, with rare exceptions, are boring. The stuff that's come t

  • i can't see if the school study was a long term one or not. and i think it's relevant for the conclusion.

  • Not a surprise (Score:5, Insightful)

    by trifish (826353) on Saturday October 23, 2010 @04:28AM (#33994872)

    Instead of skimming, you are forced to actually read every word.

    Skimming is for getting an idea of what to expect to learn. Reading is for the actual learning.

    • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

      by obarel (670863)

      Yes, I had history textbooks with unreadable tiny font. No, it didn't make me a master of history, it just made me sleepy as I struggled to stay focussed AND fight the tiny font. Not much of it made its way into my brain, as I soon fell asleep.

      No idea how I passed the exam, I wouldn't be able to tell you what was in those books.

      • by X0563511 (793323)

        ... not to mention those places were the author(s) were clearly unable to articulate an idea.

        If you have to reread a phrase 20 times, and it's NOT because of some jargon you've never seen before... the editor failed to do their job.

        • by Tacvek (948259)

          That is very true, with the exception of course being if the author intentionally articulated an idea poorly, for some reason. Perhaps he is writing about different writing styles, and is giving an example of something hard to understand. Perhaps the author wants the sentence to be hard to parse for some other reason, such as part of some sort of riddle.

          But in general, You should not need to re-read a sentence more than a time or two to understand it. A good exception, as you point out, is obviously if the

      • You fell asleep because you were bored. You need to learn to speed-read.

    • by tonycheese (921278) on Saturday October 23, 2010 @05:55AM (#33995142)

      Nothing is ever a surprise to the Slashdot crowd when they publish a study on it. Except, of course, when "correlation != causation!!!!!".

      I happen to find this extremely counter-intuitive.

    • Skimming is for getting an idea of what to expect to learn.

      I agree with what you meant. I find myself affected by this phenomenon as well.
      When you have education/knowledge, it becomes easy to fill in the blanks.

      The human mind is under a two-edged sword.
      It is our greatest strength, and our greatest weakness.
      We can adapt and overcome, but we can also become adapted to some of the most fscked conditions.

      I rationalise it as 'survival instinct'/evolution.

    • by CAIMLAS (41445)

      A very good point.

      As someone who normally reads every word, regardless of the content, I'd be really interested in seeing the results of a study adjusted for this. Take two groups: one composed of individuals who skim as a matter of habit, and the other which habitually reads "slowly" - ie, they do read every word, with regularity.

      Yes, reading every word is slower, but if reading the text is a worthwhile venture to begin with, you might as well read the whole thing. This goes for novels and technical (IT, h

    • I wenodr if the smae appiles to the good ol' "the frsit and lsat ltteer of ervey wrod are in tcat thuogh the rset of the wrod is scrmblaed" mhetod.

      The caveat is that all of those with English as a second language would likely die trying to read a textbook.

    • Instead of skimming, you are forced to actually read every word.

      EXACTLY. I wonder if this is a counter example to the speed reading claims.

  • by Lennie (16154)

    So will be be running all learning material through CAPTCHA generator ? :-)

  • by stalkedlongtime (1630997) on Saturday October 23, 2010 @04:30AM (#33994882) Journal
    If you're asking someone to absorb fluff (like nonsense about aliens) then perhaps it's a good idea to manufacture 'disfluency' with odd fonts and the like.

    If you're asking someone to absorb difficult material (like Knuth or advanced physics) then you want to minimize other sources of 'disfluency'.
    • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

      by Orgasmatron (8103)

      That word [wikipedia.org]. I do not think it means what you think it means.

    • Re: (Score:2, Insightful)

      by ZirconCode (1477363)
      Theres also a difference of the persons willingness to learn. A person will only try to learn deeper material, ex. Knuth, if they want to, in which case they will. If the person is however forced to learn the US Consitution amendments by memory, theres a small chance that they will. Unless theyre a lawyer of course, in which case its a totally acceptable thing to do. Of Course.
    • Re: (Score:2, Informative)

      by ET3D (1169851)

      You comment shows that you should change the font on your browser to something less readable, since you completely missed the part about the research done on highschool children with actual real world material.

    • I believe you've hit the nail on the head.

      BUT being able to force people to focus when they read something would be valuable as well. Possible application would be some important bit of info for grunts in the military or office policies or possibly the best use is notes to yourself to remember something.

      so either way it could use further looking into.
  • by srussia (884021) on Saturday October 23, 2010 @04:41AM (#33994912)
    The comparative readability of Arial is not the same on-screen and on paper. Here's the account in the Economist: Learning difficulties [economist.com]. It mentions "tests" that had determined readability, but alas no reference to the specific study.
    • by Gordonjcp (186804)

      Certainly on the font sample presented on the BBC site, the Arial font version was a lot *harder* to read because it was all crushed up without enough leading.

  • by Shag (3737) on Saturday October 23, 2010 @04:42AM (#33994914) Homepage

    Lots of people can remember things that were written in fancy script, like parts of the Declaration of Independence and Constitution*.

    Come to think of it, this bodes well for my kid's lousy writing - people will at least remember what she wrote, once they decipher it.

    *Exception made for Christine O'Donnell

    • Come to think of it, this bodes well for my kid's lousy writing

      That'll be an advantage if she wants to go to med school.

      • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

        by hedwards (940851)
        Not really, doctors are being allowed to write in their own script less and less because of all the medical errors associated with poor penmanship. At my doctor's office, all the communication is typed, so the likelihood of mistakes due to poor penmanship is eliminated.
    • by X0563511 (793323)

      Speak for yourself. I can hardly pick out the start and ends of words in that chicken scratch.

    • by mrsquid0 (1335303)

      > Lots of people can remember things that were written in fancy script,
      > like parts of the Declaration of Independence and Constitution*.

      However, they do not learn it by reading the versions of the US constitution that are written in fancy script. They usually learn it by reading a it in a textbook that is set in a fairly standard font.

  • by Alsee (515537) on Saturday October 23, 2010 @04:59AM (#33994968) Homepage

    Slashdot please allow me to post in Wingdings font and Symbol font. Posting in Italics TT does not make it not hard enough to read.

    -

    • by evilviper (135110)

      POSTING IN ALL CAPS MAKES IT MORE DIFFICULT TO READ AS WELL.

      ANDLETSNOTFORGETABOUTWRITINGWITHOUTANYPUNCTUATUON

      YOU CAN DO BETTER!

      Post Comment
      Lameness filter encountered. Post aborted!
      Filter error: Don't use so many caps. It's like YELLING.
      Edit Comment

      Name
      evilviper [ Log Out ]

      Subject

  • There are a few more questions to answer. (1) How long did subjects spend reading the Comic Sans documents vs. the Arial documents? If they spent more time reading the Comic Sans documents, that could explain the difference. (2) If they spent longer reading the Comic Sans versions, what was their net learning productivity after factoring the additional time in? (3) Could novelty explain the effect by obtaining greater attention? If we reprinted all textbooks in Comic Sans and similar fonts from hell, would

    • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

      by DNS-and-BIND (461968)
      Arial? Verdana, my friend. Arial is a cheap whore compared to the lady Verdana. Guess why Arial was created by Microsoft originally?
      • by Anonymous Coward on Saturday October 23, 2010 @07:21AM (#33995416)

        Arial? Verdana, my friend. Arial is a cheap whore compared to the lady Verdana. Guess why Arial was created by Microsoft originally?

        It wasn't created by Microsoft. It was originally made for IBM by Monotype in the early 80s, when it was known as Sonoran Sans (similarly, Times New Roman was originally called Sonoran Serif). Microsoft then licensed these from Monotype and renamed them Arial and TNR, respectively. But don't let little facts get in the way of your hatred of Microsoft.

  • by Anonymous Coward

    Wait until your 50. The only thing small fonts do is make your head burn out in 2 hours, and oh yeah that DTV Channel Master, I can't read a damn thing unless I am two feet away from the set. But your test was 18 yr old kids, they'll have perfect vision and be awake three days at a time. The whole premise here is BS , next you'll be telling us Graffiti Fonts are the best for working with the asm disassembler..

  • So should I make my web sites hard to read in the hope that potential customers will remember more about what is being shown to them ? Or will they just leave earlier as it is too much hard work; or perhaps remember the stuff but not where they saw it ?
    • If you want to target the young and cause anyone over 50 to skip to some other web site, the answer is simple: use a small font size and minimal contrast between the lettering and its background. 'font-size: 0.7em; color: #444; background-color: #000;' should just about do it.

  • by arikol (728226) on Saturday October 23, 2010 @05:28AM (#33995058) Journal

    Ok, what about having to read all courses in illegible fonts. will the time allotted suffice?

    It's rather obvious that slowing down the reading gives better retention, this fact is well known within psychology and cognitive science. But using this method of slowing students down may impact their overall score, as they don't have time to read everything they are supposed to.

    110 out of 100 in history, 5 out of 100 in psychology because you only managed to read the first chapter..

  • by Anonymous Coward on Saturday October 23, 2010 @06:24AM (#33995206)

    bu7 i g07 b4d gr4d35 w|-|3|\| i 4pp1i3d my k|\|0w13dg3.

  • Runic (Score:3, Funny)

    by BlackHawk-666 (560896) <ivan.hawkes@gmail.com> on Saturday October 23, 2010 @06:47AM (#33995276) Homepage

    This is why I insist on doing all of my reading in Runic :D

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Runic_alphabet [wikipedia.org]

  • Wasnt it because the 'harder to read' fonts made the 'aliens' linked to that sample look more 'authentic' and therefore increased interest in their information.
  • In a recent press release The Fine Printers Assosiation of America announced that it has been much maligned by the popular press. Mr Ucant R Eadme, their spokesman said, "Our members, mostly lawyers, food ingredient label designers and medical commercial copy writers have been engaged in a long standing and diligent effort to improve the reading comprehension of Americans. But they have been systematically mischaracterized by the popular media as selfish people helping malefactors to bury incovenient gotcha
  • Is why I write all my emails in Wingdings...

  • Everything I know I've learned from Wired magazine.

  • Maybe that's why all the bespectacled nerds tend to do better on tests, they're concentrating harder when they read?
  • Explains LaTeX (Score:2, Insightful)

    by QuantumFlux (228693)

    This totally explains why academics love the shit text that comes out of LaTeX (not the layout; it's fine -- I'm talking about that awful default font).

  • I'd like to see a study that tests learning via hard-to-read fonts over a long period of time. My hypothesis? The learning decreases as the person gets used to reading said fonts. After all. You might find a font hard to read initially. But it will become easier to read as you get used to the font's patterns.

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