Funky Fonts May Help Students Learn

Want to remember what this article says? Maybe you should read it in Comic Sans.

Fonts, or styles of typeface, that are relatively difficult to read (including the much-maligned Comic Sans) help people learn new information, according to a new study. The font effect works both in lab experiments and in real classrooms, perhaps by forcing students to work harder to process the information.

"We weren't sure if our findings in the laboratory would hold up in the classroom, so we were pleasantly surprised," Connor Diemand-Yauman, who was a Princeton University undergraduate when he conducted the research, told LiveScience.

Diemand-Yauman, his faculty mentor Daniel Oppenheimer and their colleagues published the results in the January issue of the journal Cognition. Keeping with the theme of the research, they titled their paper, "Fortune favors the bold (and the italicized): Effects of disfluency on educational outcomes." Diemand-Yauman was the lead author.

Going boldly

People generally assume that the easier it is to learn something, the easier it will be to remember the information later. But education research has shown that in many cases, it’s the struggle that makes information stick. [Read: Sorry Kids, Tests Help You Learn]

Such "desirable difficulties" include practices such as self-testing, varying how information is presented, and even leaving out letters in words. (Remembering the word "pepper" is easier when you first see it as p_pp_r and fill in the vowels yourself, for example.)

Diemand-Yauman and his fellow researchers were interested in whether switching from easy-to-read fonts to more-difficult ones would create a desirable difficulty and improve learning. They began by presenting information about three made-up alien species to 28 volunteers. Each alien species had a strange name, such as "pangerish" or "norgletti," along with seven physical characteristics. Volunteers got a list of alien names and characteristics and had 90 seconds to memorize which characteristic matched which species.

Some of the lists were typed in an easy-to-read font, Arial. Others, the disfluent lists, were typed in either Comic Sans MS or Bodini MT.

After the 90 seconds was up, the researchers distracted the volunteers for 15 minutes, then tested them on their new alien knowledge. Turns out you want your alien hunters to study up in Comic Sans: The scores for those who read the disfluent lists averaged 14 percentage points higher than those who read the list in Arial (86.5 versus 72.8 percent, the researchers found).

What about Wingdings?

Memorizing a list of alien features and getting tested on it 15 minutes later isn't representative of most learning experiences, however. So the researchers took their strange fonts to real students. The researchers recruited teachers in six subjects — advanced placement English, honors English, honors physics, regular physics, honors U.S. history, and honors chemistry — from a public school in Ohio. Each teacher sent copies of his or her classroom presentations and worksheets to Diemand-Yauman to be transferred to difficult-to-read fonts.

He and his colleagues chose three difficult fonts based on preliminary studies: the crowded and boxy Haettenschweiler, the cursive-like Monotype Corsiva, and the bubbly Comic Sans Italicized. When there was no electronic version available to alter, the researchers made blurry copies of the worksheets instead.

All told, 222 high school students participated for between one and a half weeks to about a month, depending on the class. Some classrooms got all materials in the relatively difficult fonts, while other classes got their materials in the original, easy-to-read format.

Just as in the lab, funky fonts made study more effective. The students who learned with difficult fonts got better grades and didn't seem to notice the font switch – in surveys after the study, the researchers found no differences in how students liked the material based on font. Novelty could play a role in the results, the researchers wrote, but the novelty of the fonts — which weren't too outlandish compared to regular textbook fonts — should have worn off over the course of the experiment.

Fonts are easy and cheap to change, the researchers pointed out, and may be a way to boost performance without messing with a teacher's style.

"Given our results, we can now say that disfluency can be used to improve the performance of our students," Diemand-Yauman said. Maybe all those haters at should take note.

You can follow LiveScience Senior Writer Stephanie Pappas on Twitter @sipappas.

Stephanie Pappas
Live Science Contributor

Stephanie Pappas is a contributing writer for Live Science, covering topics ranging from geoscience to archaeology to the human brain and behavior. She was previously a senior writer for Live Science but is now a freelancer based in Denver, Colorado, and regularly contributes to Scientific American and The Monitor, the monthly magazine of the American Psychological Association. Stephanie received a bachelor's degree in psychology from the University of South Carolina and a graduate certificate in science communication from the University of California, Santa Cruz.