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The Effect of Personalization on Student Learning


A group of ten separate studies illustrated that conversational cues can have a deep impact on student learning, particularly for deep learning that allows students to transfer their learning to new situations.[1]  Students presented with information in a less formal and more personal manner performed significantly better on problem-solving tests than students hearing identical information presented in a more formal manner.[2]

In her article, Legal Education in the Age of Cognitive Science and Advanced Classroom Technology, Deborah Merritt provides three reasons why personalization deepens learning:

“First, encouraging listeners to think of themselves as a reference point may enhance their interest in the subject, which produced more active cognitive processing. Second, personalizing information may help listeners relate new data to existing mental schema; extending mental frameworks in this manner encourages deeper learning. Finally, listeners may respond to the social cues of conversational tone; because another person is addressing them, they feel a ‘commitment to try to make sense out of what the speaker is saying.’ The implicit social obligation prompts more active cognitive processing as ‘the learner works harder to select organization, and integrate incoming information.’”[3]

There are a number of ways that you, as the instructor, can incorporate a more conversational manner into their teaching:
  • Utilize personal pronouns, such as “I” and “you,” rather than third-person structures;
  • Acknowledge your audience’s learning directly, showing that you understand the challenges of the learning process and giving recommendations for how to deal with those challenges;
  • Use positive gestures, such as smiling and nodding, when presenting to students; and
  • Place the student into the hypothetical, by suggesting they imagine if they were conducting research on behalf of their client.
  • Be judicious in how you use technology, as wordy PowerPoints and dimmed lights can cause students to fixate on the screen rather than their connection with you. [See Merritt's article for much more on this.]

Personalization may be particularly important in legal research classrooms, where students may have less interest in the subject matter due to the misconception that they already know how to research, to the fact that research sessions may be worth only part of a grade in their first year skills class or worth less credits than some of their doctrinal classes, and to the perception that research is boring. Personalization can help peak the interest of students, increasing their willingness to engage more actively with the material.

Personalizing the classroom experience and acknowledging the challenges student encounter may not only help students develop a growth mindset and promote the cultivation of trust in the classroom, but can actually improve students learning.  As such, it’s worth a try to start incorporating some of the methods listed above.


[1] Richard E. Mayer, Principles of Multimedia Learning Based on Social Cues: Personalization, Voice, and Image Principles, in The Cambridge Handbook of Multimedia Learning, at 201, 206 (Richard E. Mayer ed., 2005).

[2] Deborah Merritt, Legal Education in the Age of Cognitive Science and Advanced Classroom Technology, 14 B.U. J. Sci. & Tech. L. 39, 49 (2008).

[3] Id. at 50 (quoting Mayer, supra note 1, at 202).

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