Words are essential
There is no doubt that words play a vital role in learning. They can be used to describe, inform, explain, persuade, ask questions, prompt reflective thought and more.
Did you know?
Mayer et al (1996) conducted research to examine the impact of wordiness on learning. They compared three undergraduate introductory lessons on meteorology, each involving differing amounts of text. They found that the lesson with the fewest words resulted in the most retention of information and a greater ability to apply that information to solving related problems. They concluded that the lesson with the fewest words resulted in the best learning. No subsequent research has refuted this finding.
Perhaps ‘less is more’ because of the way we read on screen. It is well known that unlike printed matter, we tend to skim when we read the screen. That is, we sample blocks of text, moving rapidly from one to the next in an effort to get the gist (see work by Muter and Maurutto, 1991). Given that this is the case, it is important to decide on the key messages of the learning, and to ensure that each block or paragraph of text includes a single key message.
A word from our expert
Sir George Bernard Shaw supposedly once wrote, “I’m sorry this letter is so long, I didn’t have time to make it shorter”. This illustrates the extra work required to make text succinct, but we have proved time and again that it is worth it.
For example, we designed a programme on compliance for a large financial institution that included phrasing which was essential to meet legal requirements. We worked closely with subject experts to establish essential messages and exact wording. Then we used these to write concise yet engaging short paragraphs of text. The result was an extremely effective and well-received course.
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Mayer, R.E., Bove, W., Bryman, A., Mars, R. and Tapangco, L. (1996). ‘When less is more: Meaningful learning from visual and verbal summaries of science textbook lessons’, Journal of Educational Psychology, vol. 88, no.1, pp64-73. Muter, P. and Maurotto, P. (1991) ‘Reading and skimming from computer screens and books: the paperless office revisited?’, Behaviour & Information Technology, vol. 10, pp.257-266.