WWS Study Finds Making Material Harder to Learn Can Improve Long-term Learning and Retention
Superficial changes to learning materials could yield significant improvements in educational outcomes, according to findings by researchers at Princeton University and Indiana University expected to be published in an upcoming volume of Cognition.
Daniel Oppenheimer, the Woodrow Wilson School’s Associate Professor of Psychology and Public Affairs at Princeton University, and his colleagues Connor Diemand-Yauman, a recent Princeton University graduate, and Erikka B. Vaughan, a Ph.D. candidate at Indiana University, assessed whether changing the font of written material could improve the long term learning and retention of information presented to students. The authors’ theory was that by making the font harder to read the students would concentrate more carefully on learning the material, based on the concept of disfluency. Disfluency is when something feels hard to do and has been shown to lead people to process information more deeply.
“This study could prove useful for improving educational practices, says Oppenheimer. “Fluency interventions are extremely cost-effective, and font manipulations could be easily integrated into new printed and electronic educational materials at no additional cost to teachers, school systems, or distributors. Moreover, fluency interventions do not require curriculum reform or interfere with teachers’ classroom management or teaching styles.”
To test disfluency-based interventions, the authors conducted two different experiments. In the first, 28 participants between the ages of 18 and 40 were brought to a lab at Princeton and asked to learn about extra-terrestrials (to limit the amount of already known information could influence the test) that were presented in either easy or challenging fonts. They were given 90 seconds to memorize information about the aliens, distracted for 15 minutes, and then tested. Those who read about the aliens in an easy to read font answered correctly 72.8% of the time, compared to 86.5% of those who read about ETs in hard to read fonts.
The second experiment took the lab findings to the field to test. Two hundred and twenty-two high school students in Chesterland, Ohio were assigned material in easy and difficult fonts across subjects and grades on a randomized basis. The findings were similar to the Princeton study: students reading material in hard to read fonts did better on regular classroom assessment tests than did their randomly selected counterparts reading the same material in easy to read fonts.
The authors caution that these findings need to be further investigated. They highlight that at the point in which the material becomes so difficult to read it becomes illegible or otherwise unnecessarily difficult, it would hinder learning. The authors also suggest that students who are easily discouraged or less able might actually give up with the harder to read fonts rather than digging in and really learning the material.
Concludes Oppenheimer, “This is a no-cost policy fix that could really improve students’ learning. While we do need to further test the theory, if we are right, schools across the country could potentially see significant results without making a dent in school budgets. The take home message here is clear - Small interventions can have a big impact.”
Daniel Oppenheimer’s current research focuses on how reasoning about how metacognition impacts judgments and decisions in the domains of randomness, categorization, quantity estimations, value estimations, inductive reasoning, and interpersonal attribution. He is the author, most recently, of The Science of Giving: Experimental Approaches to the Study of Charity (Psychology Press, 2010) co-edited by Chris Olivola. Oppenheimer joined the faculty at Princeton in the fall of 2004. Prior to joining the University, he taught at Stanford, where he also received his Ph.D. in 2004.
Connor Diemand-Yauman is from Chesterland, Ohio, and obtained his Bachelor’s Degree from Princeton University in 2010. In February 2010, Diemand-Yauman received Princeton University’s Pyne Honor Prize, the highest general distinction conferred on an undergraduate. The Pyne Honor Prize is awarded to the senior who has most clearly manifested excellent scholarship, strength of character and effective leadership.
Vaughan is from Long Island, New York, and obtained her Bachelor’s Degree from Howard University in Washington, D.C., where she majored in Psychology, and minored in Human Development.
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