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.

Email? lol

One hundred and fifty years ago, traditionalists predicted the telephone would never catch on as a means of business communication. What industrialist in his right mind would agree to a contract over a wire? No, the only way to conduct business was face to face.

I can remember when electronic mail first became available for business users and then general use. (Here’s a 1981 “thought leadership” ad from Honeywell describing a product that I helped document. Behold the cutting edge!)

1981 email ad
"What the heck is Electronic Mail?"

Adopting E-mail took some persuasion. At first people sniffed at the idea of dashing off an informal, unproofread e-mail instead of a carefully written memorandum. Articles were written on whether it would be accepted as credible, whether it was a step down, and even what constituted eMail etiquette. Of course, the purists were innundated by the subsequent flood of emails (even if 90% of it turned out to be junk), and in business today, an email is the de facto memo. You can get your point across just as effectively, it carries just as much weight, and if you email something stupid, you can get into just as much trouble as if you had it typed and inked your signature on it. And I think technical writers have thrived in this environment, because the impact of our writing skills were magnified. (I don’t like to get into face-to-face arguments, but I’m lethal in flame wars…!)

OK, so now it’s a generation later, and we’ve all become comfortable with email. As reported this week by the New York Times (it’s OK, I read it online), young adults consider email passé—excuse me, lame—and prefer text messages and instant messages for their immediacy. Futurists have begun to predict that companies will communicate with their customers this way. (STC Associate Fellow Jon Baker thinks it will become the primary means of communicating technical information.) The rest of us sniff at the idea. Communicating a nuanced message in 140 characters? OMG. There’s a new communications gap.

Given the historical examples I’ve cited, and knowing my Gandhi, I can guess at the likely progression of events: first we scoff at the idea, then we fight it, but in the end we have to adopt it. I’m in Stage One: I think my friend Jon is wrong. But I’m not going to bet against him, and I’m going to continue exploring the medium.

I interview Buck Chaffee about certification

On November 7 I sat down with Clarence “Buck” Chaffee to discuss work on the STC certification program. The interview was recorded and posted to the STC Notebook blog on STC.org. You can watch it here:

Video: Steven Jong and Buck Chaffee Talk About STC’s Certification Process

(Behind the scenes: We thought there would be a rehearsal take, so I found myself looking into space instead of the camera. When we finished, the videographer liked the take and used it. Oops! I thought we should have reshot it with the office lights on, but whatever. Also, someone snarkily commented that the resulting video made him seasick. OK, so it was recorded with a digital camera braced on the back of a chair. Point taken, though I recommend the person avoid “The Blair Witch Project” …)

Marketable skills

I’m a sucker for headlines with numbers in them—you know, like “Five Reasons the iPad will Take Over the World” or ‘The 10 Phoniest Movie Monsters of All Time.” So I read with interest “Seven Marketable Skills that Most Technical Writers Have,” by Laura Spencer, on the blog ihearttechnicalwriting.com. To summarize, her list is:

  1. Interview skills
  2. Teamwork
  3. Detail orientation
  4. Ability to meet deadlines
  5. Peer management
  6. Ability to learn quickly
  7. Communication skills

As it happens, I was part of a workshop earlier this month in which a small group of experts talked about the six certification areas of practice
and the knowledge, skills, and abilities (KSAs) you need to perform competently in them. And these skills certainly came up! I take Laura’s piece as an affirmation that we’re on the right track.

A new source for STC certification news

STC is beta-testing a new community networking site, MySTC.STC.org. The Certification Committee is participating in the beta test, and we have started a group there. So far, so good… It has blogs, forums (which I think can be opened up to the world), and a listserv we will use for committee correspondence. We hope the group will become a central source of news about STC certification, as well as a respository for committee records and information.

I will be posting certification-related information on that site, so if you’re interested, you should bookmark it. You need to register on the site, even if you’re an STC member, but you don’t have to be a member to read the blogs and stay abreast of developments.

Hope to see you there!