Learning experiences and learning styles

[Edited 2/5/11] This recent article on fonts by Laura Miller on Salon.com caught my eye:

Hideous fonts may boost reading comprehension

On the subject of fonts (or, typefaces, to use the more technically accurate term), feelings often run high. People have their favorites, for reasons both practical and sentimental. The story of how Helvetica became the preeminent typeface of our times has inspired a documentary film, while loathing of Comic Sans has prompted what can only be called a typographical jihad. A surprising number of older authors name Courier as the font they prefer to write in because it resembles the characters of a typewriter and therefore kindly suggests that the current draft is still available for improvement. But surely everyone can agree that a good typeface is easy to read, right?

Well yes, we do. But Miller’s article, via Wired.com,  points to a Princeton University study that says, according to Miller, that “ugly, irregular fonts can boost the amount of information readers retain from a text.” What’s up with that? It got me thinking.

Obviously, you learn better and retain more if you pay attention, if you’re engaged. It stands to reason that something a little challenging to read makes you slow down and pay more attention.

I have another reaction to the idea. The human brain is not a computer and not a recording device. Learning requires memory, and memories are formed and strengthened by association, or cross-links, with previous or other memories. Text you read in an unusual format forms memory links not only to the information, but the unusual format or context. To give a personal example, I remember that the Continental Divide marks the geographic point where rainfall to the east flows (eventually) into the Atlantic and the Gulf of Mexico and rainfall to the west the Pacific. I remember this information, but I also remember where I was when I first read it: in the Rocky Mountains in Colorado, actually standing on the Divide. I can still visualize the plaque explaining it; and now, so can you:

On the Continental Divide

The three elements of information, location, and appearance all tie together in my memory, forming a stronger and more accessible memory than any one element. Another example: I listen to audiobooks during my commute to work, and sometimes, for a couple of days anyway, when I recall a passage of text, I can remember where I was on the road when I heard it. and vice versa. So I’m not surprised that researchers now think that what we’ve been told about study habits may be all wrong, and that going over the same information several times in different environments improves retention. As reported in the New York Times:

The brain makes subtle associations between what it is studying and the background sensations it has at the time, the authors say, regardless of whether those perceptions are conscious. It colors the terms of the Versailles Treaty with the wasted fluorescent glow of the dorm study room, say; or the elements of the Marshall Plan with the jade-curtain shade of the willow tree in the backyard. Forcing the brain to make multiple associations with the same material may, in effect, give that information more neural scaffolding.

While the researchers quoted in the Times story go on to say that “learning styles” may not be a valid concept, I conclude that the effort we as technical communicators put into presenting information in different ways—at least when we have the time—is not wasted. I always try to pair text with an illustration of some sort. I have been justifying it by saying that some people will follow the text and some will follow the picture. But another and perhaps more accurate way to describe the effect is to say that the association between the information and the illustration will reinforce the learning by providing  additional context (scaffolding, if you will).

I think I’ll keep doing what I’m doing.

Published by Steven Jong

I am a lifelong technical communicator, a Fellow of the Society for Technical Communication (STC), a former STC board member, and chair of the first STC Certification Commission. I occasionally blog about these and other topics.

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