Co-authored by Oliver Field and Lucy Cui
The common phrase “work smarter, not harder” embodies a sentiment of maximizing the return on effort put into studying. As students, we are always receptive to new, more efficient means of studying so that we may learn more with less effort. There is a growing interest at the intersection of cognitive science and education, which aims to utilize what researchers learn about the mind to create more effective learning strategies.
Many peers, and even some teachers, believe that to read, re-read, and re-re-read is the best strategy to drive home important information — it is commonplace to simply go through one’s notes in preparation for an exam. However, for the last two decades an increasing amount of literature has found that passively revisiting the same texts and notes is not in fact the best way to learn (Carrier & Pashler, 1992; Wetzler et. al., 2021). Instead, flashcards and testing friends exemplify study methods that enhance learning, by practicing the skill of retrieval. Research into learning and retention has revealed that rehearsing item retrieval yields better results than traditional, passive reading (Karpicke & Roediger, 2008).
Desirable Difficulty & Perceptual Disfluency
It has been found that study methods which are more difficult and recruit more cognitive effort will increase retention, commonly referred to as “desirable difficulty” (Bjork & Bjork, 2011). It is thought when the information becomes harder to learn, the information is more slowly and deeply processed, and consequently is better integrated in one’s existing schema of knowledge. One such example is the “generation effect”, in which recall is improved if the subject had to generate the material themselves, rather than simply read it (Bertsch et al., 2007). Additionally, quizzing oneself after studying will yield better results than re-reading the same material, known as the “testing effect” (Vaughn & Rawson, 2012). These phenomena, derived from empirical evidence, challenge the notion that information which is easily accessible will be remembered better and instead show that a little extra effort is actually beneficial. Desirable difficulty opens the door for the exploration of non-traditional study methods, and invites new ways of delivering material to students.
The medium of presentation can be manipulated to increase the necessary effort required to parse important information, in hopes to elicit deeper cognitive processing. The relative ease in which information is read is described as “perceptual fluency” (Diemand-Yuaman et al., 2011). Material that is more difficult to read is “disfluent” and requires deliberate, focused attention to parse. This recruits slower and deeper cognitive processes (Alter et al., 2007). As a means to achieve desirable difficulty, visual clarity and perceptual fluency can be adjusted. Thus, many hope that perceptually disfluent material will facilitate increased retention of read material, without increasing the difficulty of the content itself.
Inspired by this school of thought, Sans Forgetica was created to deliberately disrupt its readers, in hopes to conjure the benefits that perceptually disfluent material may offer. Gaps in the font are designed to slow down readers, as each letter requires the use of imagination to fill them. This also may foster the benefits from the generation effect (Wetzler et al., 2021). The font seems incomplete so that readers must engage with the text to derive meaning from the symbols, which disrupts the autonomy of usual reading. The attention required to read Sans Forgetica is theorized to elicit the deeper, slower processing akin to other desirably difficult material. If such a small manipulation like a change in font could lead to drastic benefits of increased retention it would have a monumental impact on how teaching institutions present material to their students. However, research studies in the wake of its release have shown that Sans Forgetica shows little educational benefit, and in some cases even hurts retention.
Multiple studies found no benefit for increased memory retention when compared to traditional fonts. In cue-target pair recall tests, Sans Forgetica showed no increase in recall for pairs of words that were either highly associated or weakly associated, and in some instances impaired performance compared to Arial (Taylor et al., 2020, Geller et al., 2020). The Geller study further investigated the font’s use in an environment which more closely resembled a traditional classroom setting. Important sentences of a prose passage were presented in Sans Forgetica (similar to how material is commonly highlighted) but no benefit was found. Wetzler et al. (2021) extended the classroom research and found that entire passages presented in Sans Forgetica were not any more likely to be remembered than those presented in Times New Roman, even after a one-week retention interval.
Studies record that the font does increase “perceived difficulty” — participants feel as if what they are reading is more difficult to parse and understand (Taylor et al., 2020; Wetzler et al., 2021). It seems that discontinuities in the typeface does slow down readers, but it is not guaranteed that this fosters deeper understanding of the material. In these cases, it was thought that if participants recognized the text as more difficult to read, they might purposely recruit more cognitive effort while reading (Maxwell et al., 2021). However, this difficulty may be disheartening to readers, as they report they are comprehending less when reading material in Sans Forgetica. Participants rated their judgments of learning as lower when compared to similar material presented in a traditional Arial font (Maxwell et al. 2021). Not only do readers actually score lower, but they also feel like they are scoring lower.
Despite the evidence against Sans Forgetica, there is still hope for an effective use case. A recent study found that when participants were unaware they were going to be tested on words and cue-target pairs, Sans Forgetica produced better recall ability than Arial (Geller & Peterson, 2021). This effect was not found when participants were aware they were going to be tested. These results indicate that in an educational setting, when readers have the intention of learning the material, Sans Forgetica does not recruit the additional processing necessary to produce an increase in recall. Students will encode the information regardless, motivated by the awareness of an upcoming test, and no difference is found. However, when readers do not intend to memorize the material, the difficulty induced by the font may be enough to elicit more cognitive effort than would be used otherwise. It is in this “unintentional” learning that Sans Forgetica may be of use.
Research has not found convincing evidence that Sans Forgetica achieves its goal of facilitating deeper processing and increasing memory retention for learned items. It seems that this font does increase the reader’s perceived difficulty of material, as well as decreases fluency, but this has not correlated to deeper cognitive processing and later benefits in retrieval. Only when students do not have the intention to memorize the material, do we see the potential for Sans Forgetica to recruit more effort and benefit retention. More research needs to be done, especially in the realm of unintentional learning, for the use of Sans Forgetica to be justified for educational purposes.
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