Field of Science

So maybe reading *should* be harder

Some weeks back I chided Jonah Lehrer for his assertion that he'd
love [e-readers] to include a feature that allows us to undo their ease, to make the act of reading just a little bit more difficult. Perhaps we need to alter the fonts, or reduce the contrast, or invert the monochrome color scheme. Our eyes will need to struggle, and we’ll certainly read slower, but that’s the point: Only then will we process the text a little less unconsciously, with less reliance on the ventral pathway. We won’t just scan the words – we will contemplate their meaning.
This sounded like a bunch of neuro-babble to me, partly because the research he cited seemed to be about something else entirely.

Obviously, the ventral pathway is the problem.

Spoke too soon

To the rescue come Diemand-Yauman, Oppenheimer & Vaughan, who just published a new paper in my favorite journal, Cognition. The abstract says it all:
Previous research has shown that disfluency -- the subjective experience of difficulty associated with cognitive operations -- leads to deeper processing. Two studies explore the extent to which this deeper processing engendered by disfluency interventions can lead to improved memory performance. Study 1 found that information in hard-to-read fonts was better remembered that easier to read information in a controlled laboratory setting. Study 2 extended this finding to high school classrooms. The results suggest that superficial changes to learning materials could yield significant improvements in educational outcomes.
The first experiment involved remembering 21 pieces of information over a 15-minute interval, which while promising, has it's limitations. Here are the authors:
There are a number of reasons why this result might not generalize to actual classroom environments. First, while the effects persisted for 15 min, the time between learning and testing is typically much longer in school settings. Moreover, there are a large number of other substantive differences between the lab and actual classrooms, including the nature of materials, the learning strategies adopted, and the presence of distractions in the environment... Another concern is that because disfluent reading is, by definition, perceived as more difficult, less motivated students may become frustrated. While paid laboratory participants are willing to persist in the face of challenging fonts for 90 s, the increase in perceived difficulty may provide motivational barriers for actual students.
Or it could just make the students bored.

In a second, truly heroic study, the researchers talked a bunch of teachers at a public high school into sending them all their classroom worksheets and powerpoint slides. The researchers recreated two versions of these materials: one in an easy-to-read font and one in a difficult-to-read font. Each of the teachers taught at least two sections of the same course, so they were able to use one set of materials with one group of students and the other set with the another group. The classes included English, Physics, Chemistry and History.

Once again, the researchers found better learning with the hard-to-read fonts.

Notes and Caveats

The researchers seem open to a number of possibilities as to why hard-to-read fonts would lead to better learning:
It is worth noting that it is not the difficulty, per se, that leads to improvements in learning but rather the fact that the intervention engages processes that support learning.
Moreover, unlike Lehrer, they don't recommend making everything harder to read, learn or do:
Not all difficulties are desirable, and presumably interventions that engage more elaborative processes without also increasing difficulty would be even more effective at improving educational outcomes.
There is one obvious concern one might have about their Experiment 2: the teachers were blind to hypothesis, but not to condition. The authors attempt to wave this away but asserting that the teachers would likely make the wrong hypothesis (that learning should be worse when the font is hard), and thus any "experimenter" bias would be in the wrong direction. However, we have no way of knowing whether the teachers attempted to compensate for the hard-to-read materials by explaining thing better. In fact, the authors had no way of testing whether the teachers behaved similarly in both conditions.

That's not at all saying I think it was a bad study or shouldn't have been published. I think it's a fantastic study. I don't know how they roped those teachers into the project, but this is the kind of go-get-it science people should be practicing. The study isn't perfect or conclusive, but no studies are. The goal is simply to have results that are clear enough that they generate more research and new hypotheses.

Connor Diemand-Yauman, Daniel M. Oppenheimer, and Erikka B. Vaughan (2011). Fortune favors the bold (and the italicized): Effects of disfluency on educational outcomes Cognition, 118, 111-115 : doi:10.1016/j.cognition.2010.09.012


Chris said...

You really can't go wrong chiding Lehrer. He spouts over-generalizations and misreadings on a regular basis.

N.M.Levesque said...

This seems like an artificial method of getting people to an appropriate level of concentration during reading. Unfortunately the reward in most literary components of a a high school curriculum is not for 'really' learning, for concentrating and understanding--it's for regurgitating copy and paste style quotations from reading material and summarizing basic points. So this may develop into a useful method of influencing better learning.

Heath Quinn said...

Someone at the primary level of this discussion needs to check out the work of Dr. Margaret Livingstone (Harvard). I believe, based on my understanding of her work, that the improved retention has nothing to do with illegibility - that it's about texture, the vision system which texture (and other features, such as lowered contrast and roundedness) engages, and how the mind responds to that vision system's inputs.