For well over a decade, teachers have heard that we should strive for the right level of “desirable difficulty.”
In brief: easy learning doesn’t stick. If we want to ensure our students learn material in lasting ways, we need to be sure they wrestle with the material just the right amount.
(Of course, getting to “just the right amount” requires lots of teacherly thought, experience, and wisdom.)
Many years ago, a Princeton undergraduate had an intriguing idea. Maybe we could increase desirable difficulty by using a difficult-to-read font.
His theory went like this. If readers have to concentrate just a little bit more to make sense of what they’re reading, that extra measure of concentration will be a “desirable difficulty.” The result just might be more learning.
He tested his theory in a psych lab. And then — being a thorough sort — he tested it for ten weeks in a nearby high school. The result: students learned more when they read material in a hard-to-read (aka, “disfluent”) font.
Researchers in Australia wanted to take this idea to the next level. They wanted to design an optimally difficult font.
They tried out several different strategies, including:
leaving out parts of letters,
having letters slant the wrong way,
even having parts of letters misalign with each other.
By testing different combinations of these potentially desirable difficulties, they came up with a winner — which they have deliciously dubbed “sans forgetica.”
In two different experiments, students remembered word pairs better when they studied them in sans forgetica, rather than a typically “fluent” font, or in other excessively “disfluent” fonts.
If you’re keen to play with typefaces, you can download that font at the link above.
You can check out their video here:
Reasons to be Cautious
Of course, we should look before we leap.
First: later studies into disfluent fonts have led to decidedly mixed results. According to this meta-analysis, the results average out to zero.
My own hypothesis, as I’ve written here, is that disfluent fonts help only in particular circumstances.
If the cognitive challenges of a problem are already high, then a disfluent font might make them too hard. If the cognitive challenge is quite low, then a disfluent font might raise them to just the right level.
(As far as I know, no one has tested that hypothesis.)
Second: the Australian researchers haven’t published their findings. So, this research hasn’t yet been vetted in the way that research usually gets vetted. (The link above — like all news about sans forgetica — goes to a university press release.)
Third: common sense suggests that disfluent fonts include an important flaw: the more students read a particular font, the more fluent that font will become.
In other words: sans forgetica might start out optimally disfluent. However, over time, students will get used to the font. It will be increasingly fluent the more they use it.
If you want to try disfluent fonts, therefore, I suggest you use them sparingly. You should, I imagine, use them for particularly important information and assignments.
But, to ensure they remain disfluent, you should not have them be a regular part of your students’ reading experience.
To be clear, we have no research guidance at this granular level. As must be true with phrases like “desirable difficulty,” teachers must translate the helpful concept to the specifics of our daily classroom lives.