We all use bold and italics for emphasis, and I’m not innocent of bumping up the font size when I need something to carry a message of importance. But recent studies show that while font size and weight won’t help you remember information, an unfamiliar or difficult-to-read font will.
The Princeton University Department of Psychology recently released an article detailing two studies on disfluency (difficulty understanding or recalling information) related to the font in which information is presented. In the first study, 28 men and women were asked to read information about new alien species; each group received the same information written in different fonts (16pt Arial or 12pt Comic Sans/Bodoni MT). Later, they were all given an exam relating to the materials. The group reading in the less common fonts outscored those reading in Arial by roughly 13%.
In the second study, over 200 students in an Ohio school were given supplementary course materials in English, history and science printed in Monotype Corsiva. The remainder of students were given the same information in standard-issue format. Follow-up testing showed that all students receiving the script version of notes and guidelines scored better than those with Times New Roman, especially in Physics.
So, what does all of this mean? The implication is that a less familiar font requires more concentration to read, which improves learning in a rather predictable way: Reading materials are studied more closely, allowing the reader to fully understand and retain information better than another reader who can easily skim through the paragraphs.
Reprinting a textbook not really an option? That’s ok. Daniel M. Oppenheimer, a psychologist at Princeton and co-author of the studies, says you can just study harder and get the same effect… but we already knew that.