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Um, I Think These Studies Are Missing Something….


Yesterday, two lengthy articles were published reporting on studies saying that people learn better if the information is presented visually in a less easy-to-see form. Font Size May Not Aid Learning, But Its Style Can, Researchers Find was in The New York Times and Clarity Not Always the Best For Learning was in Miller-McCune (the second one takes the point a little further and suggests hard-to-follow lessons work better, too). The ideas is that the struggle enhances the learning process.

On a certain level, this makes sense to me — the harder you work at something could make a greater impact. Of course, you have to want to learn what is being taught. I don’t know about you, but I want to do everything possible to make my lessons more engaging and easier to understand — many of my students have a enough struggles going on in their lives and plenty of reluctance to wanting to learn in school.

I’ve previously posted about an article in Scientific American which reported on a study that showed the easier materials are to understand, the more motivated students are to learn it.

I think I’ll go with the recommendations in that article.

What do you think?

Author: Larry Ferlazzo

I'm a high school teacher in Sacramento, CA.


  1. In his audiobook “Interventions,” Randy Sprick cited a researcher whose name I don’t remember. The gist is that a person’s motivation to do anything equals the person’s perceived value of an activity, times their perceived likelihood of success. If you don’t think you’re going to succeed, the chance that you’re going to try is very small. You’d have to make up for that with a whole lot of perceived value in order to motivate students.

    In a classroom full of students used to being right, or at least creatively wrong, harder lessons/fonts/whatever might well increase processing time, in a well-structured activity. In a more typical setting, with any number of students unsure about their chances of success, anything that makes it more difficult will simply decrease the chance of attempts, much less successful attempts.

  2. Larry – I have to agree that they’ve missed the point. The lessons that I’ve had which are most memorable to students are those that were surprising, exciting. There’s an emotional component that helps memory. And THAT is worth striving for. But I don’t deliberately set out to make the lessons hard – for some kids, every lesson is hard, even the fun ones. And for the kids who are uninterested in school – yes, let’s give them another reason to disconnect. Could these researchers be reaching for the sound bite?

  3. I think assessment and instruction need a balance when it comes to the way in which content is being delivered to learners. A lot depends on the learners, the course, and the teacher, but I also think that learning styles do not exist ( I think it depends on the content that is being delivered along with a long list of other factors: learning progression, technology available, time constraints, sociocultural factors, etc.

    Lessons should be engaging and effective. Distinguishing the effectiveness between a “hard” and “easy” lesson requires us to understand what we mean by students understanding the content. Lessons should be rigorous and relevant, for if students arrive to an understanding too easily then teachers might be missing an opportunity to get more out of their students. It’s really about gaining as much understanding as possible given the time frame with which teachers have to work.

    Note: I use the term “understanding” as defined by Wiggins and McTighe (2005) which includes six facets: (a) can explain, (b) can interpret, (c) can apply, (d) has perspective, (e) has empathy, and (f) has self-knowledge. I view understanding as a matter of degree and not dichotomous as in a student does or does not understand something.

  4. I am the first to advocate that accessible writing is essential and work long and hard to make mine so. Some of my colleagues argue that they write in ways that are difficult to understand to force students to think in new ways. I just can’t agree with them as it seems most students give up the struggle before they have learned anything much. Nevertheless, I have just read the reflections from my 4th year education students on the assignment I gave them in their class – creating a standards-based integrated curriculum. Many of them commented on how confused they were at the beginning as they read through the standards from many different subject areas to look for the most important things to know, do and be. Even following the textbook they couldn’t make sense of it. As the experienced professor I told them to carry on and eventually it would all fall into place. In their reflections they report on how they actually did see the light…after muddling around in the concept for some time. Their final products were great! Many commented on how working through the ambiguity allowed them to think in new ways and to be creative. I have seen this happen in different contexts many times and like to call it the “pedagogy of ambiguity” that students need to work through – uncomfortable as that is – to begin to see things with new eyes. All the more important for the writing to be accessible then.

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