Study finds “memory-boosting” font doesn’t improve recall

Back in 2018 a team of Australian researchers presented a novel font called Sans Forgetica, with the claim that it helps enhance memory. A team of UK and New Zealand researchers put the font to the test, and in a newly published peer-reviewed article reveal the font, while certainly difficult to read, may not boost memory after all.

In the early 1990s UCLA psychologist Robert Bjork coined the term “desirable difficulty.” His theory suggested when information is difficult to learn it can be remembered more effectively. The paradoxical theory has since been backed up by a number of studies trying to home in on the most desirable level of difficulty to enhance learning. A Goldilocks sweet-spot, so to speak – not too easy, not too hard, but just challenging enough to amplify attention and retention.

Some researchers more recently have explored whether simply making information a little harder to read can result in a degree of desirable difficulty that enhances memory retention, and a number of different studies have reported incredibly mixed results, with a meta-analysis in 2018 of 25 empirical reviews concluding hard-to-read fonts confer no benefit to memory.

When the Sans Forgetica font appeared a couple of years ago the team behind the font reported the results of successful testing using a cohort of 400 students. The results suggested the students effectively remembered 57 percent of information presented in the new font, compared to only 50-percent recall of information presented in an Arial font.

“Considered together, this collection of factors – the high stakes for educators, the seemingly small effect, the conflict with prior work and open theoretical question, the apparent ‘one-size-fits-all’ benefit for memory, the accolades and media coverage, and the lack of peer-review – mean it is important to replicate the Sans Forgetica team’s findings,” the authors of the new research write in their study.

The new study carried out four different experiments, encompassing more than 800 participants. First, the researchers tested whether Sans Forgetica is empirically more challenging to read than text in an Arial font. Unsurprisingly, the results found the font is indeed harder to read.

The second experiment presented word pairs to the subjects. More people recalled pairs of words presented in the Arial font than word pairs presented in the Sans Forgetica font. This particular experiment suggested, at least in this case, the Sans Forgetica font possibly impaired memory retention.

The final pair of experiments presented longer form information and concepts in both fonts. Almost no difference was found in memory recall performance between the fonts across these two tests.

“After conducting four peer-reviewed experiments into Sans Forgetica and comparing it to Arial, we can confidently say that Sans Forgetica promotes a feeling of disfluency, but does not boost memory like it is claimed to,” says Kimberley Wade, an author on the new study, from the University of Warwick. “In fact, it seems like although Sans Forgetica is novel and hard to read, its effects might well end there.”

Quote in Sans Forgetica font, from Kimberley Wade, University of Warwick
Quote in Sans Forgetica font, from Kimberley Wade, University of Warwick

The study is by no means the final word on hard-to-read fonts as a potential learning enhancer. The authors accept there are limitations to their experiments. Particularly of note is whether a longer period of time is necessary to gain memory benefits from information presented in these so-called “disfluent” fonts. A 2017 article from two German psychologists suggested memory benefits from disfluent texts may take up to two weeks to appear.

Andrea Taylor, from the University of Waikato in New Zealand, suggests students looking for easy memory-boosting techniques should avoid relying on hard-to-read fonts. Despite the loudly proclaimed benefits of Sans Forgetica as a memory-enhancing font, the science is not at all settled on the matter.

“Our findings suggest we should encourage students to rely on robust, theoretically-grounded techniques that really do enhance learning, rather than hard-to-read fonts,” says Taylor.

The new study was published in the journal Memory.

Source: University of Warwick

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