Last week, we were sent this article by a colleague in the philosophy department, entitled “Fortune favors the BOLD (and the Italicized ): Effects of disfluency on educational outcomes”. It’s an interesting short paper that describes the outcome of two experiments which support earlier research claims about the educational benefits of using disfluent, i.e.“slightly difficult to read”, fonts.

The motivation for these studies stems from earlier research into fluency, the feeling of ease we associate with a particular thinking operation. Apparently, we tend to have a bias in favour of fluency, so much so that it affects our judgment, e.g. to the extent that “stocks from fluently named companies are judged to have higher value, [driving] purchasing decisions, which inflates the actual value of stocks” (Oppenheimer, 2008).

Fluency, it is suggested, might even impair the quality of our judgement and our processing, by making us feel too much at ease. Disfluency, on the other hand can make us work that little bit harder so we overcome gut instinct and choose to problem solve more carefully (with more correct results).

According to the authors, this was demonstrated by these two experiments, especially the second one, which was set in natural conditions, i.e. in a school, over a term, without neither teachers nor students being aware of what exactly was being tested.  In conclusion, the authors are hopeful that this insight can lead to “improving educational practices through cognitive interventions.”

But is disfluency just a matter of keeping learners on their toes, of putting extra cognitive hurdles in their way? Would our students be more successful with their problem sets if they were asked to juggle tomatoes while they’re trying to solve them?  Apparently not: “It is worth noting that it is not the difficulty, per se, that leads to improvements in learning but rather the fact that the intervention engages processes that support learning.”

They also point out point at which disfluency turns into illegibility is still to be ascertained. It’s not, as yet, an exact science. Nevertheless, and this is the encouraging part, if simple, subtle changes in font can have a positive effect on understanding and retention of learning material, then this is something well worth investigating further – not least because such subtle changes would cost almost nothing.

As our philosophy colleague jokingly put it: “The implication is the harder Moodle is to read, the better students will learn!” Not quite, of course. But almost. Expect our Moodle to look very different in the future…

PS this was also picked up yesterday by the Today programme on Radio4: “Neuroscience blogger Jonah Lehrer discusses his own gut feeling that we remember ugly fonts much more easily.” (Though he isn’t as good as the genuine article)

Ref: Oppenheimer, D. M. (2008). The secret life of fluency. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 12(6), 237–241.