It’s all in the font: fortune favours the bold (and the italicised).

As teachers we spend a lot of our time considering how we can improve the retention of the information that we are providing our learners with.  Many take this consideration down to the level of the font used for a hand-out or on powerpoints.  I remember as a trainee teacher I was told that comic sans was ‘the best’ font to use and can especially aid those with dyslexia (the British Dyslexia Association actually list it with five other fonts that are recommended).

Diemand-Yauman et al. (2011) conducted two studies looking at the effect of ‘disfluent’ fonts suggesting that the additional cognitive processing required to assimilate the information will result in a greater memory trace of the information presented (as in Craig and Tulving’s (1975) Levels of Processing).  It is suggested that these aptly named “desirable difficulties” (such as using a disfluent font) capitalise on this by creating additional cognitive burdens that improve learning.

In the first experiment 28 participants had to recall a list of 21 items of abstract information – details of species of aliens. This task was meant to parallel taxonomic learning in a biology classroom; alien species were used in place of actual species to ensure participants had no prior knowledge of the domain. This informationScreen Shot 2013-07-21 at 15.35.24 was presented using three different types of font (Comic Sans, Bondoni MT and Arial). Results showed a significant difference in recall following a 15 minute delay (t(26) = 2.3, p < .05) with those participants who were presented with the disfluent fonts scoring 14% better on average on a recall test.  A second study was conducted in a naturalistic setting using 222 high school students as a follow up to the initial laboratory study and this supported the initial findings providing further evidence that using disfluent fonts aids recall.

This research would suggest that adding cognitive burden to a student during encoding is beneficial to their later recall.  There are several caveats to consider if / when implementing this.  Diemand-Yauman et al. recognise that it is important to ascertain the point at which material is no longer disfluent but illegible otherwise one would be hindering a student’s progress.  Further to this less motivated, less able, or those with specific statemented learning difficulties could find the fonts unaccessible.

The scope of disfluent interventions is wide and these are cost-effective and easily implemented.  Unless requested by a student with specific difficulties or instructed to by my learning support department I personally use either Arial or Calibri fonts and do not think that I will be changing this practice any time soon.  However, the underlying concepts of creating resources that require students to think and increase the cognitive processes rather than just giving it to them is an interesting on that I will be implementing in my next review of resources over the summer.

Would you consider action research on this? What are your feelings about utilising so-called ‘disfluent’ fonts in class or on worksheets? Your thoughts in the comments.


References

Diemand-Yauman, C., Oppenheimer, D.M., and Vaughan, E.B. (2011) Fortune favors the bold (and the italicized): effects of disfluency on educational outcomes. Cognition, 118, 1, 111-115.

doi: 10.1016/j.cognition.2010.09.012  (full text currently available online here)

Teaching Generation Me

“The students never used to be like this…”. It’s a conversation that I am sure takes place in every staff room and work room across the spectrum of institutions each year with teachers who have only been in the profession for several years agreeing with the, lets say, more experienced colleagues.  Is there a generational gap between teachers and students, and is this being magnified by the rapid changes in technology, culture and expectations of our learners? Are learners at the moment really a ‘different bread’ of students than the generations previously?

Apparently so; Twenge (2013) writes that students are significantly different from previous generations being:

… [students] are overconfident, have high expectations, report higher narcissism, are lower in creativity, are less interested in civic issues, and are less inclined to read long passages of text. They are highly confident of their abilities and received higher grades in high school despite doing fewer hours of homework than previous generations. (pg. 66)

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If this is the case, as teachers, we need to be prepared to review the strategies that we use to teach and develop techniques to help them be successful (or should we?).  Twenge recommends that teachers of todays generation should:

  • combat students believing their entitled to higher grades departments should ensure that course syllabi should be explicit about expectations for each grade boundary;
  • give frequent feedback using realistic assessments of performance and make use of peer assessment;
  • use class time for activities and collaborative learning and not using standard ‘lectures’ for long durations;

Reading this article as an A Level teacher in the UK, the suggestions are what I, and all of the ‘outstanding’ teachers that I have observed, do on a daily basis. Ensuring that lessons are centred around what the student is doing, not what the teaching is doing; making use of AFL and collaborative learning.

Of his conclusions there are some which I do subscribe to: standards for content and learning should remain the same and there should be a consistent approach to all learners. However, this article, to me, falls between giving students an excuse for poor studentship and allowing teachers to absolve some responsibility for the attitudes of learners back onto the learner rather than considering the expectations that one sets in their own classroom.

Overwhelmingly though, I find the article an insult to the learners that are in front of us each day.  Twenge concludes with:

Today’s students often need the purpose and meaning of activities spelled out for them. Previous generations had a sense of duty and would often do what they were told without asking why. Most young people no longer respond to appeals to duty; instead, they want to know exactly why they are doing something and want to know they are having a personal impact. (pg 68)

Yes, there are some students who fall into the category of what Twenge calls the ‘generation me’, but as psychologists should we not be aware of making sweeping over generalisations.

As teachers we do need to be aware of changes around us; from pedagogical advancements and specification changes to the more dynamic changes between cohorts, and even classes, responses to lessons.  What are your thoughts on the article?  Do you find it a useful commentary on students of today?


References

Twenge, J.M. (2013) Teaching Generation Me. Teaching of Psychology, 40(1), 66-69.