“Kind words promote instruction”. King Solomon spoke this proverb three thousand years ago. Modern research proves that flattery works pretty well, too.
In their book, “The Media Equation”, Byron Reeves and Clifford Nass show that humans treat computers like real people, and that we expect computers to act like people.
People have been around for a long time. We have learned to react to our environment by instinct. Because computers and television simulate reality, they activate our brains in exactly the same way that reality does.
Reeves and Nass state that, “Modern media now engage old brains […] there is no switch in the brain that can be thrown to distinguish the real and mediated worlds”.
The good news for educators is, if we understand how people respond to people in real life, then we can use the same rules to design courses that please our students. We will benefit from incorporating this research as well as principles from Dale Carnegie and other life coaches into our lessons.
Students want our courses to have good manners, to be polite, to respect their interpersonal space, to flatter and never criticize them while taking our class.
For example, if there is an animated character on the screen, it is good manners for the character to say hello to the user when it appears, and goodbye as it leaves. It is rude for a help character to turn his back on the person they are helping.
People are polite to computers and expect computers to be polite in return. Your students expect politeness and will be disappointed if something on your course appears to be rude.
The authors emphasize that your course must follow social norms because, “it’s not just a matter of being nice; it’s a matter of social survival” – or the difference between the success or failure of your course.
This politeness rule creates a challenge for educators who seek feedback from students to improve their course. When a computer asks a user to evaluate its own performance, the user will be polite and not give honest feedback.
This is good knowledge for an educator who uses a FEEDBACK tab to gather user suggestions for their course. The FEEDBACK tab should clarify it is a separate personality from the course.
Possible wording for the tab could be, “Lunch Box has contracted us to collect feedback for their site. We will inform them of any comments and concerns you may have for their service”. Such wording will elicit more honest feedback than “Tell us how we’re doing!”.
Research shows that if the computer does not know the social traits of the user, then number (2) is true – the personality of the written content of our course should match the personality of the voice we use on the site.
A student will consider it polite if we obey four social laws called Grice’s Maxims. The rules state that we should always tell the truth (quality). We should say no more or less than what is necessary (quantity). Say nothing we can do nothing about at the moment (relevance). Use simple, plain English (clarity).
When creating our courses, we must also consider how we utilize interpersonal space. We all know what it is like to have an awkward conversation with someone who talks to us way within our “personal space”. We also know the pleasure of having an intimate conversation with someone who is physically closer to us than normal.
The rule for interpersonal space is: the closer the person is to us, the more we will pay attention to them. On a computer screen, closer is determined by how much of the computer screen is occupied by the object. A computer user will pay much more attention to the closeup of a face than it will to a full-body shot of the same person.
If we want a student to pay attention to something during a lesson, we could introduce a small object on the screen and slowly make it larger to make it look like it is coming at the student. This movement will arouse excitement in the student and cause them to focus their attention on the object.
Research shows that when our attention is drawn to an object this way, the user will engage with the object and remember it in more detail and for a longer time than an object that remains smaller on the screen.
Students want your courses to have good manners, to be polite and to respect their interpersonal space. They love to be praised and hate to be criticized.
Research shows that flattery gets you everywhere and criticism gets you nowhere. When it comes to designing your course, why is it a good idea to include flattery everywhere you can fit it in and avoid criticism?
Reeves and Nass explain that, “if news is good, we have no motivation to distinguish the sincere from the insincere; it feels good either way. If the news is bad, however, we look for ways to dismiss it […] people have a self-serving bias. People like to see themselves in the best possible light”.
What does this mean for our online courses? Flattery is motivating. Students believe they did better on a task when they are flattered by a computer than when the computer says nothing about their performance.
Students will like our course more and believe we did a better job when they are flattered by the computer than when it says nothing about their work
Students will think our course is better when it praises them than when it criticizes them.
The authors included some examples to include in our courses: “Your spelling was significantly above average. You should be commended for your work”. ”You spelled this difficult word correctly. Congratulations”.
They also included an example of a tempered criticism, “You have found a good way of doing this task. Here is another way to do it that some people prefer”.
Students are humans first. They want our courses to keep their humanity in mind. As educators, may we incorporate this research into our courses and flatter our students on toward greater academic achievement. I hope King Solomon would approve.