Can a Font Make You Smarter?

An image of various fonts
A new font for the New Year, and better learning?

Today is the second Monday of the New Year, January 10, 2011 and we are returning to work, school and normal life, you know, the one without endless shopping, cooking and preparing.

Hopefully most of your holiday 2010 remembrances are fond ones…the greetings, baked goods, travel, gifts…all good.

Hold on. The greetings; was there one holiday letter that you just can’t forget? Perhaps the writer gave too many details about a vacation home or a new luxury car? Or maybe the letter was single-spaced or in an odd font, possibly Bodoni MT, 12 point?

You, my friend, have run up against an educational aid known as disfluency. It may have been the font, not just the contents of that letter, that so deeply embedded it in your memory.

Disfluency—the experience of difficulty associated with cognitive operations—can lead to deeper processing of that material. And a new report, published online in the journal Cognition, shows that such difficulty, even presented in a superficial change such as a more difficult font, somehow helps to more deeply ingrain the material being learned.

The details: In a first study, 28 learners, ages 18-40 were asked to learn about three species of aliens, all fabricated so as to be new to all participants, and the information was presented in print. Disfluent material was presented in 12-point Comic Sans MS, 60% grayscale font or 12-point Bodoni MT 60% grayscale font. Alternatively, the reading material presented in fluent condition was in 16-point Arial pure black font. Each participant in this initial study was exposed to only one font.

Subjects were given a short time to learn the information, then distracted for 15 minutes with unrelated tasks. Finally, participants were quizzed to see what they recalled.

On average, those that studied materials in the fluent condition successfully answered approximately 72.8% of the questions, while participants using the disfluent materials correctly answered questions on the average 86.5% of the time, a difference of nearly 14%. And it didn’t matter what font was used in the disfluent materials—for both disfluent fonts, retention was better than the fluent font.

To determine whether this learning effect persisted in a real situation, 222 high school students in Ohio participated in a second study. Teachers in the second study were not told the hypothesis, only that different fonts would be used, for worksheets and Powerpoint slides. A variety of subjects, science and nonscience were taught with the materials. The length of the study in each classroom varied depending on the teacher’s lesson plan, from 1.5 weeks for a history class, to a month for physics.

After the study period, exams revealed that students studying materials in the disfluent condition scored higher on classroom assessment than students in the control group. In addition, a survey taken after the different subject exams revealed no perceived difference in the students’ feelings about difficulty or motivational differences based on fluency of the materials.
Diemand-Yauman, C., Oppenheimer, D., & Vaughan, E. (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

A few questions come to mind. Could disfluency be created by highlighting text in a dark color, say blue, or pink, to make it harder to read? Or could the disfluent condition be simulated by holding the text up to a mirror and reading from the mirror?

I tried the latter and don’t recommend it. It’s hard to imagine studying high school or college level course material this way. But if you are interested in brain teasers, the mirror might be just the ticket.

Do you have any experience with disfluency? I’d love to hear your thoughts on the subject, in any font you choose.

The following two tabs change content below.
Kari Kenefick

Kari Kenefick

Kari has been a science writer/editor for Promega since 1996. Prior to that she enjoyed working in veterinary microbiology/immunology, and has an M.S. in Bacteriology, U of WI-Madison. Favorite topics include infectious disease, inflammation, aging, exercise, nutrition and personality traits. When not writing, she enjoys training her dogs in agility and obedience. About the practice of writing, as we say for cell-based assays, "add-mix-measure".


  1. I’d be more convinced by the Diemand-Yauman paper if it contained a full set of examples of the materials tested, and broke down the results by kind of document (Word, PowerPoint) and typeface, etc. But it really only makes a very small claim that some intervention in what is perceived as the norm (even if it is only an arbitrary default, not a considered design decision) can improve learning processes. Think what might be achieved by a really considered intervention that brings together clear writing, appropriate for its audience, and clear design, appropriate for the means of communication!

    1. Paul, thanks so much for your thoughtful comments. Believe the authors note that this is only an introductory study, which needs follow-up with more stringent and broadly applied font tests (my words, not theirs).
      I (and no doubt others) share your enthusiasm (“Think what might be achieved by a really considered intervention…”) for clear, appropriate writing and material design. And if reading something in a different font helps me to better learn and retain the material, then bring on the fonts!

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.