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By Heather Morton
Senior Editor, MindEdge Learning
Researchers working in the field of learning science often tackle the difficult problem of determining how an individual teacher affects student learning.
But learning science research has answered an even more basic question—one that’s crucial to the online learning experience. It turns out that having any teacher (or even just the sense of having a teacher) boosts student learning. It’s called the “personalization principle.”
One of Ruth Colvin Clark and Richard Mayer’s 12 Principles of Multimedia Learning, the personalization principle is based on research showing that students learn more when the learning seems to be part of a social interaction. In online learning resources, the sense of a social interaction is created by including features that suggest there is a real human being behind the content.
For the past 20 years or so, researchers have studied how the personalization principle affects learning by comparing the assessments of learners who got more personalized content against those of learners who didn’t. The guidelines below, reported in Clark and Mayer’s e-Learning and the Science of Instructional Design, have been verified in numerous independent studies, and year after year more is being learned about which kinds of students benefit and under what conditions. So, if you want to help your students learn, you should:
- Use a conversational, personal style rather than a formal, impersonal style. Instead of writing, “A paragraph should always begin with a topic sentence,” you would write, “You should always begin your paragraph with a topic sentence.” Instead of, “The human heart is divided into two distinct pumping systems, the left half and the right half,” write, “Your heart is divided into two distinct pumping systems, the left half and the right half.” This kind of informal language may make the content seem more relevant to the learner and therefore motivate learning: after all, the student is not just learning about a heart, but rather about his or her heart.
- Use polite rather than direct wording with inexperienced learners. Inexperienced learners seem to do better when instructions are presented in polite language such as “You may want to click the ‘next’ button to learn about the next stage of development” or “Let’s click the ‘next’ button to learn more,” rather than the more direct “Click the next button to learn about the next stage of development.” More experienced learners show no difference in learning outcomes between the direct and polite wordings.
- Create a fictional person or cartoon character to guide learners through the material. Students learn better when a visible “teacher,” whether real or fictional, guides them through the material. The teacher character might explain how to work out a problem in a video, or provide textual information sharing its own experiences in a certain area. When courses featured a teacher character, learners rated them as more friendly and helpful (and less difficult) than courses without the “teacher.”
- Make the real author or instructor in online learning visible. This principle is related to the one above. Teachers or online content authors who include some of their own opinions on a topic, or share their experiences of a certain technique, can be more effective than those who impersonally present the material. Once again, this may be because students feel more of a connection with the person-behind-the-content and, therefore, a greater motivation to learn.
[The above points were taken from e-Learning and the Science of Instruction, Ruth Colvin Clark and Richard Mayer, 2011.]
An important caveat: in general, these guidelines seem to matter more to students who are less experienced in the area of instruction.
And, of course, it’s important not to go too far with any of these principles. Adopting a language that is too informal, or creating an online teacher who jokes around, will distract your students from what you want them to learn.
The point of the personalization principle, according to Clark and Mayer, is to have students think of the computer as another person. They believe that the personalization principle works because it mimics a social interaction, and they cite research which shows that people work harder to understand when information is offered as part of a conversation.
The personalization principle is a low-tech intervention that can have powerful effects in online learning. By writing instruction in casual, polite language and including a “person” to explain the steps of a process, you invite your students into the course and help them better remember and apply what they’ve learned. The teacher, therefore, really is a central part of any effective online learning resource.
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