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Look-Alike Virtual Tutors Found to Enhance Learning

"Similarity Effects in Online Training: Effects With Computerized Trainer Agents"

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A study of online learning has found that creating virtual tutors and trainers that resemble the student taking the course, and communicate in similar ways, may help increase engagement and performance.

Researchers from North Carolina State University, in Raleigh, looked at the effect of "superficial" similarities, such as race and gender, between the virtual helper and the student, as well as similarities in communication styles for 257 students taking online training courses. They found that when the virtual tutor and the student were matched by race and gender, the student was more engaged in the course.

The study also found that when the student and the virtual tutor had similar communication styles, the student reported being more satisfied and performed better.

The study determined students' communication styles by asking them how they would give feedback to others in various learning situations—such as helping someone with classwork. Participants also were asked to rate the virtual tutors on how closely their communications styles matched their own.

How students perceive the communication style of the virtual tutor might be just as important as whether the tutor actually exhibits communication in similar ways to the student, said Lori Foster Thompson, a co-author of the study and an associate professor of psychology at the university. "We found that people liked the helper more, were more engaged, and viewed the program more favorably when they perceived the helper agent as having a feedback style similar to their own—regardless of whether that was actually true," she said in a press release on the study.

She said the results could help inform the design of virtual tutors in online learning programs.

The full report is not yet available online, but will be published in the upcoming issue of the journal Computers in Human Behavior.

Vol. 30, Issue 23, Page 5

Published in Print: March 9, 2011, as Look-Alike Tutors Can Enhance Online Training
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