Engaging students through a conversational writing style
When we speak with each other, we generally use a relatively informal conversational style.
In contrast, when we write for learners (such as in information sheets, assignment tasks, textbooks and e-learning materials) we often use a more formal style.
But, does adopting a formal or a conversational style in learning materials affect learning processes and outcomes?
We reviewed research addressing this question in a meta-analysis and found students who studied from more conversational instructions rated them as more friendly and less difficult. What's more, when there was a more personal, conversational style in the writing students remembered the material better and were able to transfer that knowledge to novel problems.
Researchers have investigated the effect of conversational style in a number of ways. In a short narration about the human respiratory system, Mayer et al. (2004) replaced all instances of ‘the’ with ‘your’. A sentence that was changed appeared as follows: 'During inhaling, the [your] diaphragm moves down creating more space for [your] lungs’.
Some studies have also included sentences that directly address the learner; the personalised version of instructions on lightning formation used by Moreno and Mayer (2000) began with the statement: ‘Let me tell you what happens when lightning forms. Suppose you are standing outside, feeling the warm rays of the sun heating up the earth’s surface around you.’
Studies on author visibility emphasise first person writing and the revelation of personal beliefs and self. ‘But you don’t have to trust me on this; Caesar’s own point of view is spelled out in his book The Gallic Wars.' (Paxton, 2002)
Lastly, studies of effects of politeness examined learning from directly worded text (such as ‘Save the factory now’) versus more ‘face-saving’ text like ‘Why don’t we save the factory now?’ (Wang et al., 2008).
In all these ways the writer has reduced the text’s level of formality, making it resemble conversational language more closely.
What did we find?
We reviewed studies from 16 journal articles, four conference papers, and two PhD or Honours dissertations, representing experimental tests of the effect size (d) of conversational style on learning processes and/or outcomes of 3312 students. Much of this research has been informed by Mayer’s (2014) model of how social cues can activate deeper learning from multimedia.
These experiments ranged across a variety of topic areas, fields of education, educational levels, and instruction times. We found:
- students who studied from more conversational instructions rated them as more friendly (d = 0.46; five studies) and less difficult (d = 0.62; four studies);
- when there was a more personal and conversational style in the writing, students remembered the material better (d = .30; 30 studies) and were able to transfer that knowledge to novel problems (d = .54; 25 studies).
These latter results for transfer compare well with the benchmark of d = .40 suggested by Hattie (2009) for noticeable, real-world change in learning.
We also tested a number of potential moderators of these effects, to determine if conversational style works in some situations but not others. The clearest moderator of the retention and transfer results was the length of instruction time, with small, non-significant effects being found in studies longer than 35 minutes. Thus, the available evidence suggests the potency of conversational style declines in longer learning sessions.
What does this mean for teachers?
Taken together, the results of this meta-analysis suggest a number of ways teachers and instructional designers might enhance student learning from textbooks and multimedia learning materials.
The changes to instructional text evaluated in the studies we reviewed were quite modest and easily implemented:
- making changes from third person to first and second person;
- adding sentences which directly address the reader;
- using forms of address that are more polite;
- making the author’s views and personality more visible.
Given the extensive role of text-based instruction in education, these findings have potential to improve student learning.
Detailed results of this meta-analysis were published in Educational Psychology Review. Ginns, P., Martin, A.J., & Marsh, H.M. (2013). Designing instructional text in a conversational style: A meta-analysis. Educational Psychology Review, 25, 445-472.
Hattie, J. (2009). Visible learning: A synthesis of over 800 meta-analyses relating to achievement. New York: Routledge.
Mayer, R.E. (2014). Principles based on social cues in multimedia learning: Personalization, voice, image, and embodiment principles. In R.E. Mayer (Ed.), The Cambridge Handbook of Multimedia Learning (2nd ed.). New York: Cambridge University Press.
Mayer, R. E., Fennell, S., Farmer, L., & Campbell, J. (2004). A personalization effect in multimedia learning: Students learn better when words are in conversational style rather than formal style. Journal of Educational Psychology, 96, 389–395.
Moreno, R., & Mayer, R. E. (2004). Personalized messages that promote science learning in virtual environments. Journal of Educational Psychology, 96, 165–173.
Wang, N., Johnson, W.L., Mayer, R.E., Rizzo, P., Shaw, E., & Collins, H. (2008). The politeness effect: Pedagogical agents and learning outcomes. International Journal of Human–Computer Studies, 66, 98–112.
With a colleague, look at an example of materials you've written. Is the style formal or informal?
When creating learning materials for students, how can you directly address the reader?