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.

There have been several published studies (and even more newspaper articles) that show cell-phone use while driving is correlated with accidents. The suggestion from these studies is that cell phones CAUSE accidents. The implication is that we should ban cell phones while driving.

This may be true. I was scared to death last week while my taxi driver was looking at his cell phone to dial numbers. He clearly did not have his eyes on the road. If anything unusual occurred (like the van in the next lane entering our lane right in front of us—watch out please watch out!), his reaction time would have been considerably slowed and we would have been much more likely to have an accident.

On the other hand, I wonder how much of the current problems are caused by a learning deficit. After all, for most of us cell phones are rather new. More importantly, driving while using a cell phone is also new. This kind of multitasking can be learned. There are research studies that show that experience doing multitasking can increase performance on the tasks being done. With enough practice, less working-memory capacity is needed, freeing up capacity to engage in the various tasks.

One hypothesis suggested by this is that cell-phone-related accidents will decrease with time as drivers get more practice using their cell phones while driving. Judging from the number of people I see driving and phoning, not many people are heeding the warnings, so lots of people are gaining more experience. Cell-phone accident rates will also decline as new technologies are utilized, namely voice-dialing and hands-free cell-phones.

On the other hand, a second hypothesis is that anything that prompts drivers to take their eyes off the road will produce similar deficits to cell-phone driving. Here’s a short list:

  1. People who read maps while driving.
  2. People who look at the radio to tune to a particular station.
  3. People who glance at the person sitting next to them while in conversation.
  4. People who look at their food before stuffing it in their mouths.
  5. People who admire the scenery.
  6. People who rubberneck at accident scenes.

People who look at their cell phones to dial a number are just asking for trouble. It probably helps to have two hands on the wheel, as well.

I’d be willing to bet that for most people fewer accidents will occur when using a hands-free, voice-dialing cell phone than when talking with someone sitting beside them in the front seat, assuming equal levels of experience doing both. The natural human tendency to want to look someone in the eyes while talking to them will prompt most of us to try and steal a glance at our conversational partners, increasing slightly the danger from unforeseen events.

Like most things in life, learning plays a central role in our cell-phone-while-driving performance. Like most things for us humans, our cognitive machinery sets the boundaries for this performance.

New Information from the Research (An Update on My Thinking)

Although I still wonder about our ability to learn how to utilize cell phones while driving, recent research suggests that right now, we are not too good at it. Check out my updated post on this.