Friday, August 28, 2015

10 top online learning writing rules and the psychology behind them

Don’t waste your reader’s time. There is a difference between reading from the printed page and reading from a screen. Reading from paper makes use of reflected light, whereas the screen is lit from behind. This makes it more difficult to read on screen, particularly when large amounts of text are involved, and where the user is required to read for long period of time. It is almost always a mistake to simply transfer text from the printed page or workbook to the screen, without taking into account this fundamental difference.

In all reading, we do not simply scan letter-by-letter, word by word, sentence by sentence. We scan, skip and look for anchors. When we read text on screens, these behaviours become more extreme. More than this, in online learning, we need to be aware of chunking, meaning, order, cues and retention. The art of writing text for online learning is a skill, especially when that text will be read across a whole range of devices and different screen sizes. Ten quick suggestions:

1. Cut until it bleeds
Several pieces of research point towards overlong text as a destructive force in learning. Mayer, Bove, Bryman, Mars and Tapangco (1986) showed that too much text can reduce learning by up to 50%. Edit out unnecessary words, use shorter words, break down long sentences. Give yourself a maximum word length and rewrite to within that limit. Cut it til it bleeds - then cut it again.

2. Chunk text
When we read to learn, text must be chunked to increase retention. This is a well researched area. Chunking text means more paragraphs. Break down the text into more paragraphs than you would on the written page. Ebbinghaus through to Miller and many other psychologists of learning showed that chunking is a proven technique to increase retention.

3. More structure and meaningful headings
Bruner researched how structure (content must be structured so that it can be grasped by the learner), sequence (material must be presented in the most effective sequences) and generation (encourage extrapolation, manipulation and a filling in the gaps, just beyond the learners existing knowledge) all aid learning. Write to these rules. Like this blog post, screen text benefits from more headings. These headings act as structural cues for meaning, understanding and encoding, all of which aid retention. Don’t use headings like ‘Introduction’ ‘Section 3’ and so on. Make headings short, meaningful cues. Start with a question, capture main learning point in the heading.

4. Highlight key words
Highlighting ‘cue’ words within text in bold or italics. These act as cues for retention but don’t overuse, one or two at most per paragraph. Tulving explored cues in learning showing that they are vital in the process of encoding, storage and recall, and therefore retention. Another useful technique for emphasis is to pull out quotes or key sentences. You often see this in good magazine articles, quotes and main points pulled out in a separate or much larger font, even placed separately at the side of the text. This is a useful learning device that can be used to reinforce the main learning point. Again, these act as cues, which Tulving thought were essential in memory and retention.

5. Don't 'centre' text
It is far harder to read centred text, as you lose the left adjusted visual cueing, and people tend to read the lines, not the sentences - so don't do it.

Graphic artists may want your text to 'look good' but that it not the point in learning. Above all, it must be readable. This means left justifying the text.

6. Use stab/bullet points
Long paragraphs, that are in fact lists, work better on screens as stab points. These also increase encoding and retention. In one study, Mayer, et al. (1996) presented 600 pieces of scientific learning and found that briefer versions, which were concise, coherent and co-ordinated, resulted in far more effective learning. They are precise in their recommendations, ‘There is a clear pattern in which the more words added to the core verbal explanation, the more poorly the student does in producing the core explanative idea units. These results are consistent with the idea that the additional words overload verbal working memory, drawing limited attentional and comprehension resources away from the core verbal explanation.’

7. Personalise

Formal and conversational styles (using terms such as I, me, my, you, your and we) of text have been compared by Moreno and Mayer (2000) showing that the conversational style resulted in 20-46% better learning. Nass and Reeves also produced 35 studies showing that learners see technology as a human and therefore needs dialogue on a personal level.

8. Keep text close to image.
Mayer (1989), Mayer Steinhoff Bower (1995) and Moreno and Mayer (1999) in five separate studies compared graphics with text close to the graphics, and graphics with text below the graphics, at the foot of the screen. In all five studies, learners who used the co-located text and graphics improved their problem solving by between 43-89%. Similar results have been found by Chandler and Sweller (1991), Pass and Van Merrienboer, (1994). Making the learner’s eye jump from one part of the screen to another is disruptive and reduces the effectiveness of the learning.

9. Don’t do audio and text on screen
Words, in both text and accompanying audio narration, can hurt learning. This is interesting, as it is often assumed that one needs both to cover accessibility issues. Clark and Mayer (2003) argue that ‘audio or text on their own’ are better than ‘text and audio together’. This is confirmed by another study by Kalyuga, Chandler and Sweller (1999) where the group with audio scored 64% better than the group with both text and audio. They claim that one or other is redundant and will overload the visual and aural channels.

10. Don’t use unnecessary graphics
A review of studies around this concept, known as the redundancy effect, by Sweller et al. (1998) cites a list of research studies that all point to the damage done to learning when redundant material interferes with the efficacy of the learning. For example; they illustrate a point about leaving out extraneous or distracting graphics in media with an experiment, conducted by Harp and Mayer (1997), in which students were given a text to read on lightning strikes. Students who read the passage accompanied by elaborate colour photos with additional captions - as opposed to the text with simple graphics - showed 73% less retention of knowledge and 52% fewer solutions on a transfer test.

The problem, in many online learning courses and resources, is not that they are in text but that there is too much text and that it is badly written and presented. A good editor can often take subject matter text, book text or initial documents and use these techniques to make the text screen-ready. When I hired interactive designers, I gave them all literacy skill tests and was keen to see evidence of their ability to write well and edit. In many ways this is a primary skill with screen friendly writing something that had to be acquired. A good editor will reduce text like a good sauce and the learner invariably benefits in terms of understanding, encoding, retention and perseverance.

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