How language affects the performance of eLearners

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Our belief: At Vignettes Learning we use stories in eLearning; however, we make them interactive. The emphasis is getting learners involved in the story and not just telling the learners the story.
Synthesis. Heidi Grant writes that language can either take the promotion or prevention format. Since these language formats have specific effects on the listeners, each should be used appropriately. eLearning instructional designers should be aware of the implications of the promotion and prevention formats.
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In my blog, “How to Avoid Impersonal Programs and Encourage Conversations”, I wrote:

When was the last time you had a face-to-face conversation with someone and that person was not really present with you? He or she was “not really there”? How did you feel? You were probably annoyed or insulted. If this person was a friend or family member, you may have pointed it out: “Hey, what’s wrong with you today?” If this frequently happens during face-to-face meetings, it is bound to be a bigger problem with eLearning design. Most design has this common navigation, such as “click here,” “forward,” “back” and “continue.” Although they help learners know what to do, these navigations are impersonal.

Indeed, the language used in content affects the performance of eLearners. In an eLearning environment, the learners are engaged and have more control over the method of learning. They are given several options to choose from as to which lessons and knowledge resource they want to access. 

However, facilitators and developers still carry the responsibility of directing the learners so that their purpose, objectives, process and assessment are accurate. Facilitators are still expected to intervene during the sessions either through real-time engagement, automated instruction or virtual interaction.

Heidi Grant writes that language could either take the promotion or prevention tone in dealing with listeners or audience. While the promotional language focus at encouraging the learner to acquire ‘plus points’ , the preventive language cautions the learner from getting ‘negative points’. Each approach has a particular effect on the learner. 

Using the experience with Boeing, Grant distinguishes the language of promotion and prevention:

One of my students was a vice president of Boeing. And he told me the story about the fact that their safety record just wasn’t good enough. Their products were not safe and not reliable. And they felt what they needed to do was motivate managers to make that better to have a different record of safety. And they naturally decided the way to do that was by offering a bonus and saying that if the safety record improved, by the end of year, everybody would get a bonus.

And to his surprise, it didn’t work. And he assumed, well, how could it not work? It’s kind of like one size fits all, carrots and sticks. And it turned out that the problem is that when you offer a bonus, that’s really a promotion kind of motivation because you’re saying if you do this and that, you’re going to gain something. You’re actually going to advance your salary. So that puts everybody into a promotion mindset.

Whereas what they really wanted to do was improve safety. And to improve safety, you need people to be in a prevention mindset. And so you can’t really give a bonus. And you have to do something really quite different.

By being aware of the promotion and preventive language, developers can design their instructional materials by combining both approaches.

Here are some tips on using promotional and preventive language in eLearning design:

  • When possible, use learning games – even the simplest format – in the design to encourage learners to ‘earn points’ while they are learning. Games carry both promotion and preventive approach in eLearning. 
  • When using the promotional language, make sure that you have explained the context of the lesson so that the learner could build an emotional connection with the ‘reward or the points’. Make sure that the ‘carrot at the end of the stick’ is the right kind of carrot that could compel the learner to chase after it.
  • When using the preventive language, the learners should understand that past gains could amount to nothing if the current objectives are not met. You can win in rounds 1 to 11 but you lose if get knocked out in the 12th round.
  • Combine the promotion and preventive approach in your eLearning define. Balance of approach or the middle way is one of the safest approach.

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