Personalization Principle Illustration

We’ve all been there: the moment you realize you’ve stopped paying attention and have no idea what you just read or heard. So you go back and re-read or retake or review, but it keeps happening. Maybe you’re just distracted? Or maybe there’s another explanation.

The vast majority of nonfiction texts and informational materials, including e-learning courses, are written in a formal style. Why? Because that’s how we’re taught to write in school.

In his book E-Learning and the Science of Instruction, Richard Mayer outlines his research, which suggests that people try harder to understand something when they are engaged in a conversation with someone else. It seems our brains are hardwired to pay closer attention when a social element is introduced. Favoring a personal, conversational style and incorporating virtual coaches in e-learning courses can get learners to pay closer attention and retain more of what they learn.

Let’s look at a couple of the quick and easy ways Mayer suggests for personalizing your e-learning course.

Use the First and Second Person (“You” and “We”)

You can take a text from informal to formal simply by replacing the word “the” with the first- and second-person pronouns “you” or “we,” like in the following example:

Formal: When exercising, the heart rate increases to supply more food and oxygen to the muscles.

Informal: When you exercise, your heart rate increases to supply more food and oxygen to your muscles.

What a difference this small change makes! The first example sounds dry and academic, while the second is more relatable.

Ask Questions and Direct Comments to the Learners

Another way you can make your course sound more conversational is address the learner on a more personal level. For example, instead of jumping right into an explanation, start it off with something like: “Did you know that …?” or “Now let’s take a look at …”

Favor Polite Language over Direct Language

The results of one study showed that when you use polite versus direct language learners perform better, especially those with a low level of prior knowledge of the subject matter. Keep that in mind when you’re writing feedback for questions in your next e-learning course. Instead of saying, “Sorry, that’s incorrect. Try again!” you may want to say “Sorry, that’s incorrect. Do you want to give it another try?”

Use Human Voices for Narration

You may be tempted to use a text-to-speech application to create voice-over audio for your course. While it certainly makes it fast and easy to create and maintain the audio, be sure to consider how it impacts the effectiveness of the course. Mayer’s research shows that people learn better when listening to a human voice versus a machine-generated voice.

Include a Visual Narrator

Mayer also suggests that by adding a visual narrator, we can simulate a person-to-person interaction and increase learner engagement. With a visual of the speaker, learners feel more connected, as if they are conversing with another person. They may even view the narrator as a guide of sorts, so they feel less alone and more comfortable in the learning process.

Although personalization is a highly effective technique for increasing learner engagement, be careful not to overdo it. Or, as Mayer says, “Good instructional design involves adding just the right amount of social cues to prime a sense of social presence in the learner, without adding so much that the learner is distracted.”

Want to learn more about Mayer’s principles? Check out these articles:

Questions? Comments? Feel free to share in the comments section below. And don’t forget to follow us on Twitter and come back to E-Learning Heroes regularly for more helpful advice on everything related to e-learning.


1. Clark, R. C., and R. E. Mayer, E-Learning and the Science of Instruction, 2nd edition (San Francisco: Pfeiffer, 2007).

Maxine Guillen

Thanks for this, really good advice. E-learning scripts are so important to get right. On the one hand I spent years writing academic essays, and on the other teaching live informal seminars. I always think of e-learning scripts as something in between; keeping it informal but also succinctly encompassing all of the main points so that your audio doesn't drag on for too long. I often find that when recording the audio I'll change parts of the script that don't quite work when spoken....usually these are the parts you frequently stumble on because although fine written down on paper they are not usually how you would explain it to a learner when speaking to them one-to-one. I really envy those who can record their audio without a script! If anything I always try to at least give the impress... Expand

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