In Praise of Bad Handwriting (?)

Some research has shown that fonts that are harder to read can lead to better retention of the information. The linked study gave subjects a set amount of time to read a passage and memorize the information in the passage. Subjects who read “ in an easy-to-read font (16-point Arial pure black) answered correctly 72.8 percent of the time, compared to 86.5 percent of those who reviewed the material in hard-to-read fonts (12-point Comic Sans MS or Bodoni MT in a lighter shade).”

I’m slightly skeptical of the conclusion of the studies and a lot of the media coverage has not been great. I suspect that a lot of the increased performance in the task came from the novelty of the font types. People almost always read things in standards fonts like calibri, times new roman, or arial (although Roboto is undoubtedly the best standard font and I am happy to argue with anyone about this FACT). The memory retention benefit of the “hard to read” font might come primarily from the novelty of reading in the font since novelty is such an important mechanism for memory retention.Some folks have, I think, incorrectly interpreted these findings to mean that we should create more education resources in comic sans. But, if the novelty of the stimuli is the real cause for memory retention benefits then comic sans use is zero-sum — the more we use novel, hard-to-read fonts, the less novel they are, and the less effective they are for memory retention.

Another interpretation would be to say that the novelty of the fonts make them harder to read, however we gain better readability over time. So the more we read them the more they both become less novel while also becoming more interpretable. Either way there’s a lot of research precedent pointing at how difficult-to-interpret information can cause more effort in interpretation which can cause greater memory retention.

As a teacher, this is pretty damn helpful. As you can see by my writing sample to the left, my handwriting is awful. When taking notes my students are frequently asking for interpretation of certain phrases and words. Wait what’s that? Which that? That that next to the 2. No not that that, the other one…

My students complain about my handwriting a lot and I’ve tried to improve it, but I honestly can’t. And in some ways, it might genuinely be counter-productive to make it more legible. When I’m in a rush, my handwriting becomes a bit of a super comic sans. It isn’t novel, but it is difficult to read and the learning curve for easy interpretation is gradual and slow. My students take more time to read it when taking notes, but the increased reading time will likely cause greater retention than if my handwriting was perfect.

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