ATD Blog

Leveraging Social Presence in Asynchronous Training

Friday, January 11, 2013

Want a quick and inexpensive evidence-based technique to improve both learner satisfaction and learning? Consider social presence! An analysis of more than 1,400 lesson student ratings found that social presence was the most important factor related to high satisfaction (Sitzman et al, 2008). What is social presence and how is it best generated in instructor-led events as well as in asynchronous e-learning? Although high social presence leads to higher ratings, does it also lead to better learning? These are a few of the issues we will review in this and several articles to follow.

What Is Social Presence?

Social presence is the extent to which learners perceive a personal connection with the instructor and also with fellow learners. Social presence is independent of delivery media.

Face-to-face environments have the greatest potential for social presence;after all, the instructors and learners are all in physical proximity. However, that potential is not always realized. How many times have you attended a class or conference and left the event not having communicated with the facilitator or with your colleagues? At the other end of the spectrum, asynchronous self-study e-learning, at least on the surface, has the least potential for social presence. However, a few evidence-based techniques can turn a solitary experience (in an instructor-led classroom or online self-study environment) into a more social event that leads to better learning and student satisfaction.
Technique One: Use First and Second Person Language

Consider a biology lesson on how lungs work, tested by Mayer et al, in 2004. Which of the following sentences do you think led to better learning?

Version 1: “During exhaling, the diaphragm moves up, creating less room for the lungs, air travels through the bronchial tubes and throat to the nose and mouth where it leaves the body”


Version 2: During exhaling, your diaphragm moves up, creating less room for your lungs: air travels through your bronchial tubes and throat to your nose and mouth where it leaves your body”

Just the small change of converting "the" to "your" in 11 places resulted in better learning with a median effect size of .79. In 10 of 10 experiments that replace impersonal referents such as "the" or "one" with words such as "I," "we," and "you," learning improved with a very high median effect size of 1.30. First- and second-person informal language is one technique you can use to implement the “personalization effect” (Mayer, 2005; Clark & Mayer, 2011). Note that the technique is simple and inexpensive to implement and can apply to any delivery medium including print, classrooms, and asynchronous e-learning.

In future articles, I’ll review research on other evidence-based methods to increase social presence in your training, including the use of online agents, polite phrases, online collaboration techniques, and instructor self-revelation techniques known as “visible author.”

Your Lessons Learned


The personalization effect has been demonstrated with children and young adults in a university setting. Do you think a more informal conversational style will resonate with your learners? Are you constrained regarding the tone of your training language by internal legal requirements or corporate policy? Have you compared a formal and informal approach to the language used in your training classes? Please comment and add your lessons learned.


Clark, R.C. & Mayer, R.E. (2011). E-Learning and the Science of Instruction. San Francisco: Pfeiffer. See Chapter 9.

Mayer, R.E., Fennell, S., Farmer, L, & Campbell, J. (2004). A personalization effect in multimedia learning: Students learn better when words are in conversational style rather than formal style. Journal of Educational Psychology, 96, 389-395.

Mayer, R.E. (2005). Principles of multimedia learning based on social cues: Personalization, voice, and image principles. In R.E. Mayer (Ed.) The Cambridge Handbook of Multimedia Learning. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Sitzmann, T., Brown, K.G., Casper, W.J., Ely, K. & Zimmerman, R.D. (2008). A review and meta-analysis of the nomological network of trainee reactions. Journal of Applied Psychology, 93, 280-295.

About the Author

Ruth Clark is a specialist in instructional design and technical training, determined to bridge the gap between academic research and practitioner application in instructional methods. She holds a doctorate in the field and is president of her own company, Clark Training & Consulting. Her books and articles focus on various aspects of training and e-learning.

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