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Harder to read = easier to recall

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Fancy fonts might be harder to read, but the messages they convey are easier to recall, according to boffins at Princeton and Indiana Universities.

The researchers got 28 subjects to read a load of made-up facts to learn in 90 seconds, with a third getting the details in black Arial while the rest got greyed out (60 per cent) Comic Sans and Bodoni MT. Sure enough, facts learned from badly-printed fancy fonts scored higher, as reported in the thinking man's journal Cognition (and available from Princeton in pdf format), but more remarkable was that the result scaled up when applied to the school room.

More than 200 Ohio pupils got the fonts changed in their Power Point presentations and handouts, with dodgy photocopying used where electronic copies weren't available. The teachers were not told the purpose of the test, and didn't even meet the researchers to ensure the trial was suitably blind, but continued teaching normally for several weeks using suitable materials with different groups.

The materials, and teaching, ran across half a dozen subjects and culminated with tests which showed that using harder-to-read materials resulted in a better score, in every subject except Chemistry (which was a close-run thing). When asked how they felt about the teaching materials, and if they'd be happy to use them again, the pupils showed no preference for the clearer fonts.

The researchers' hypotheses is that a font which is harder to read engages different parts of the brain, leading to better recall. The researchers point out that memorising word pairs has been demonstrated to be easier if the pairs require calculation ("salt:p_pp_r" is easier to recall than "salt:pepper"), which would seem to be the same process at a more-conscious level.

Whether that means we should be discarding our electronic books, as The Telegraph seems to think, is another matter – reading a book is not the same as memorising facts – but the reader-selected fonts are a limitation of the electronic format. Stephen King famously demanded an entire print run be pulped 'cos the wrong font has been used, claiming that only his preferred font generated the right atmosphere for the book, but most of us are more interested in the words than the style in which they appear.

What we can conclude from the research is that we finally know why we're so much cleverer than kids today – the jelly-printed handouts* we had at school were almost illegible, which is obviously why the grown-ups are doing such a great job of running the world these days. ®

* Note to the whippersnappers – jelly printing involves a tray of jelly onto which ink is pressed from an original, with copies laid onto the jelly, which works about as well as it sounds.

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