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Brief statement of the personalization hypothesis

Matching up the features of an instructional component with students' personal interests, experiences, or typical patterns of language use, will lead to more robust learning through increased motivation, compared to when instruction is not personalized.

Description of hypothesized principle

Instructional tasks are often presented in ways that do not connect with the experiences and interests of individual students. Instructional programs, and specific tasks in those programs, are typically developed to work with large groups of students. Instruction can be provided on and individual bases according to domain factors such as connections to particular knowledge components, but differentiation with respect to motivational factors is less common.

Personalization is a process by which features of an instructional component are designed to match up with students' personal interests, experiences, or typical patterns of language use in order to increase robust learning through increased motivation. According to the hypothesis, personalization will lead to more robust learning through increased motivation, compared to when instruction is not actively personalized.

Trade-offs must be considered because personalization may alter instruction in such a way that interferes with other principles, such as by reducing the amount of practice or distracting the student with interesting but irrelevant material.

Operational definition

Recent work has considered at least the following two forms of personalization:

sense similar to Clark & Mayer, 2003

Presenting language (text or speech) to the student using first- and second-person pronouns, as well as polite and informal language.

sense similar to Cordova & Lepper, 1996

Tailoring instructional content to match the learner's personal interests or preferences.


Cordova and Lepper (1996) reported positive effects of personalization and choice within an educational game for children in the domain of arithmetic. Those studies found that both personalization and choice played important roles: students given a choice of personalized tasks outperformed students given tasks without choice and/or without personalization.

In the REAP Tutor, the curriculum is personalized so that students receive series of practice readings that match up with their personal interests in general topic categories (e.g., Business, Arts, Science). Trade-offs were found between finding texts of interest, which appeared to improve learning, and finding texts with multiple practice opportunities.

McLaren, Yaron, Lin, and Koedinger (2007), in tutoring system for chemistry, compared hints and directions written in a formal tone to those written in a more polite and conversational manner in order to increase engagement

Experimental support

Non-experimental support

Teachers often attempt to connect classroom material to students’ personal interests in order to increase motivation (Fives and Manning, 2005).

Laboratory experiment support

In vivo experiment support

The REAP study on personalization found that personalization of practice reading materials led to positive effects on ESL vocabulary learning. Overall post-test scores for students receiving personalized instruction were not statistically significantly different from scores for a control group. Students with personalization actually practiced fewer target words because of the technical challenge of the tutor finding texts that are both personalized and contain a wealth of practice opportunities. However, both normal post-test and transfer test scores indicate that students with personalization learned a higher proportion of the target words they practiced, and the increased rate of learning likely cannot not attributed solely to practicing fewer words.

Theoretical rationale

Motivation can be defined as the desire to engage in a specific activity (Shiefele, 2000). It interacts with perceived self-efficacy, which is a student’s belief that he or she can accomplish a given task (Bandura, 1997).

Motivation can be separated into intrinsic and extrinsic forms (Deci & Ryan, 1985). In terms of education, extrinsic motivation depends on outside forces such as praise from teachers or the fear of receiving poor grades, while intrinsic motivation is the desire to learn because the task or content is enjoyable, satisfying, or fun.

Extrinsic motivation and intrinsic motivation can have different effects on learning. Lepper (1988) discusses the differences between these forms of motivation. Extrinsically motivated students often choose the easiest path to achieving an extrinsic goal. Extrinsically motivated students are also more likely to quit after an initial failure to complete a task if they perceive the task to be difficult. In contrast, intrinsically motivated students are more likely to take risks, choose difficult learning paths, persist in the face of difficulty, and apply effective learning strategies.

One of the important precursors to intrinsic motivation is interest. Recent literature divides interest into two forms: personal interest and situational interest (Schraw and Lehman, 2001). Personal interest, also referred to as individual interest or topic interest, is topic-specific and has long-lasting personal value. It is based on pre-existing knowledge, experiences, and emotions. For example, a person might be motivated to read an otherwise dry piece of text because it discusses a topic of personal interest (e.g., financial news).

In contrast, situational interest is context-specific, of short-term value, and is triggered by the environment rather than by the self. For example, a student might read a book because it is well-written and engaging even though the topic is not particularly personally interesting (e.g., a mystery novel).

Personalization can affect motivation in various ways but in particular with respect to personal interest.

Conditions of application

Personalization should not distract or interfere with other important instructional principles. For example, finding interesting practice materials should not interfere with optimal scheduling of practice. Also, the success of personalization may be determined by the extent to which it can affect important task features rather than less relevant ones. For example, changing the interface of a tutoring system to match a student's favorite color is unlikely to have a substantial effect on learning (unless perhaps the tutor provides instruction on color theory).

Caveats, limitations, open issues, or dissenting views

Attractive multimedia environments are often used in order to increase motivation through situational interest. However, Clark and Mayer (2003) caution against adding irrelevant information such as background music that may distract learners. Such extraneous information is often labeled as seductive details, and in some studies has been shown to have negative effects on learning even while interest increases (Harp and Mayer, 1998).

Although Cordova and Lepper (1996) found positive effects of personalization for school age children, the extent to which personalization affects learning in older children and adults is less clear.

Personalization should be distinguished from choice. For example, Beck (2007) reported improvements in learning outcomes in a reading tutor when children were given a choice of practice reading passages based on their titles. However, it is unclear from that study whether the improvements were due solely to choice or the fact that students could choose texts that were more interesting or otherwise better practice.

Motivational concerns often interact with domain-based concerns. Del Soldato and Du Boulay (1995) provide a detailed discussion of the interaction of domain-based goals and motivational goals related to perceived self-efficacy. They developed a rule-based system for choosing the level of difficulty of problems, provision of assistance, use of praise and other strategies for affecting self-efficacy and motivation based on student performance and estimates of student motivational states.

Clark and Mayer (2003) discuss the negative effects of seductive details in instructional materials, which are interesting or exciting but distract or interfere with attention to relevant information.

Variations (descendants)

Generalizations (ascendants)


Bandura, A. (1997). Self-Efficacy: The Exercise of Control. New York: W.H. Freeman.

Beck, J. (2007). Does learner control affect learning? Proceedings of the 13th International Conference on Artificial Intelligence in Education, Los Angeles, CA.

Cordova, D. I. & Lepper, M. R. (1996). Intrinsic Motivation and the Process of Learning: Beneficial Effects of Contextualization, Personalization, and Choice. Journal of Educational Psychology. Vol. 88,l No. 4, 715-730.

Clark, R. C. and Mayer, R. E. (2003). e-Learning and the Science of Instruction. Jossey-Bass/Pfeiffer.

del Soldato, T., Du Boulay, B. 1995. Implementation of motivational tactics in tutoring systems. Journal of Artificial Intelligence in Education. Volume 6 , Issue 4.

Deci, E. L. and Ryan, R. M. (1985). The relation of interest to the motivation of behavior: A self-determination theory perspective. In Renninger, K. A., Hidi, S.,and Krapp, A. (Eds.), The role of interest in learning and development (pp. 43-70). Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Inc.

Lepper, M. (1988). Motivational Considerations in the Study of Instruction. Cognition and Instruction. 5(4), pp. 289-309.

Shiefele, U. (2000). Interest and Learning from Text. Scientific Studies of Reading, 3(3).

Schraw, G. and Lehman, S. 2001. Situational Interest: A Review of the Literature and Directions for Future Research. Educational Psychology Review.