Research has shown that a conversational writing style is generally more effective at producing learning results than more formal writing.

See a blog blurb by Kathy Sierra to learn more. She did a nice job of writing a review of a 2000 study by Moreno and Mayer from the Journal of Educational Psychology.

Also, check out all the comments after her blog post to see the research findings put into perspective. Some people loved the comments. Others went crazy with angst.


Some Minor Caveats (it might be best to read this after you read Kathy’s post)

In the Moreno and Mayer study, the researchers found the following improvements due to a more personalized style.

  • Transfer Improvements: Experiment 1: 36%, Exp. 2: 116%, Exp. 3: 46%, Exp. 4: 20%, Exp. 5: 27%
  • Retention Improvements: Experiment 1: 3%, Exp. 2: 6%, Exp. 3: 22%, Exp. 4: 10%, Exp. 5: 12%

Transfer in this case meant the ability to answer questions regarding the topic that were not directly discussed in the text. So for example, one transfer question used was, "What could be done to decrease the intensity of a lightning storm?"

Retention was measured with the question, "Please write down an explanation of how lightning works."

You’ll notice from the above numbers that transfer improved learning results more than retention did. In fact, 2 of the 5 experiments did NOT show statistical improvements in retention. While transfer measures are generally considered more difficult to obtain and thus more important, the actual tests of transfer and retention in the 5 experiments cited are roughly equal in difficulty. Certainly if we wanted learners to be able to explain how lightning works, the experiments do NOT show definitively that a more personalized writing style would guarantee such a result. On the other hand, personalization did not hurt the learning either.

Note further that in the two experiments where retention was not statistically improved (Experiments 1 and 2), the learners were observers and did not have to interact with the learning material. This is relevant to the other caveat I want to discuss.

The other caveat is that while conversational style is highlighted in Kathy’s blog, the researchers are very careful to focus on the personalization of the writing, and drawing the readers (or listeners) into the dialogue. So for example, it may be helpful to do the following in our instructional designs (these insights are not necessarily empirically tested, but they are consistent with the research results):

  1. When writing or speaking you should use the word "you," instead of a third-person more-formal style.
  2. When writing or speaking, it may also be useful to use the word "I," as such a use may encourage your audience members to respond on a personal level.
  3. It may be best to address learners as participants not as observers.
  4. It may be best to relate the content to the learners’ real world experiences.

Note that more research is needed in this area. There are not enough studies to predict this same effect with all learners, all learning materials, and all learning and performance situations.

Research Article Cited by Kathy: 

Moreno, R.,  & Mayer, R. E. (2000). Engaging students in active learning: The case for personalized multimedia messages.   Journal of Educational Psychology, 92, 724-733.