Skip to main content


Hello and welcome to the Learning Science Weekly newsletter! We have a ton of new subscribers this week and we’d like to welcome you all! Be sure to join our community, if you haven’t already, at

This week, we’re focusing on the following questions:

  • What are pedagogical agents, and do they enhance learning?

  • Are “streaks” more effective at encouraging regular learning than badges?

  • What skills make customer education professionals successful?

Quite the Characters

Pedagogical agents (aka learning partners and virtual tutors): it’s likely that you’ve seen them before, and some of us have even incorporated them into our e-learning courses. These characters that guide users through a multimedia learning journey can take a number of forms (see the image above, from Sahimi et al., 2010; and the chart below, from Clarebout & Heidig, 2012), including cartoon people, animated animals, lifelike humans, or even inanimate objects (similar non-pedagogical agents would include the ever-helpful Clippy). These characters are widely used in certain courseware development platforms and some instructional designers swear by them. But here at LSW we wanted to know: do they actually enhance learning?

The answer to that question is: maybe. Results from a number of studies over the years have been mixed, but according to a meta-analysis of 43 studies, pedagogical agents can have a small but statistically significant positive effect on learning outcomes (see Schroeder, Adesope, & Gilbert, 2013). We should note that this effect is moderated by the age of the learner: pedagogical agents provided the largest benefit to students in grades 4-7 (p. 17). Additionally, the design of the agent and its implementation can affect outcomes. Moreno (2005) identified eight principles for effective pedagogical agents (based on empirical evidence, naturally); one of these is the personalization principle, which states that pedagogical agents should communicate in a conversational, informal manner rather than a formal, monologue style.

Now, you may be thinking -- 2005 was a long time ago; is the personalization principle still valid? With that in mind, I found a small (n=96) 2020 study that investigated whether an animated pedagogical agent delivering instruction in a conversational style optimizes learning outcomes, cognitive load, and intrinsic motivation. The findings of this study indicate that, while learners found that courses with an animated pedagogical agent were more interesting, the presence of the character increased learners’ perceived pressure and mental efforts. Overall, regardless of the presence of a pedagogical agent, the conversational-style instruction increased knowledge retention.

So, what does that mean? These researchers concluded that pedagogical agents are only beneficial when the features, like the language style, are optimally designed. “Otherwise,” they state, “a pedagogical agent is merely entertaining and thus potentially distracting, resulting in non-significant or even negative impacts to learners” (p. 9).

Key Takeaway: Some courseware vendors might entice you with entire libraries of these pedagogical agents that can be incorporated into your e-learning content, but don’t be drawn in by the cute faces and funny poses. If you’re going to use a pedagogical agent in your e-learning, know that it could draw attention away from the content. And, be sure to use an informal tone with your character.

Read More ($): Lin, L., Ginns, P., Wang, T., & Zhang, P. (2020). Using a pedagogical agent to deliver conversational style instruction: What benefits can you obtain? Computers & Education, 143.


If you’ve used the language learning app Duolingo, you might be familiar with the concept of streaks: by completing a lesson each day, users can extend their streaks and are rewarded. Those who are not “streakers” are, on the other hand, mocked mercilessly by Duo to Owl for their failures (spurring the most delightful memes). But Duolingo uses a variety of gamification elements in addition to streaks, including badges. So, which technique is more effective?

According to a study presented at the 2018 4th Annual International Conference on Computer and Information Sciences (alphabet soup version: ICCOINS), which compared streaks to badges, the answer is (drum roll, please): streaks. Why? The concept of the winning streak is more effective at “helping users enhance their regular learning activity into serious gaming activity,” and, perhaps more importantly, “increases the motivation of advanced users when the attractiveness of Badges decreases” (Huynh, Zuo, & Iida, 2018, p. 4).

Key Takeaway: Badges may give learners a one-time boost, but streaks can encourage users to make learning a regular activity.

Read More ($): Huynh, D., Zuo, L., & Iida, H. (2018). An assessment of game elements in language-learning platform Duolingo. 2018 4th International Conference on Computer and Information Sciences (ICCOINS), Kuala Lumpur, 2018, pp. 1-4.

Skills for Days

Some jobs have clear expectations. To be a good human resources leader, for example, you need to have communication skills; HR expertise; business acumen; global and cultural effectiveness; and, of course, leadership skills, among others. In other fields, it’s not as clear. Take customer education, for example, which is a relatively nascent field: what skills do you need to be a successful professional in customer ed? If you’re in an L&D role already, what skills do you already have that you can use to your advantage in this new sector? And, what’s the best way to break into the customer education industry?

Register today to join us on Thursday, December 10 at 1 pm EST as LSW Editor-in-Chief Dr. Julia Huprich breaks down these questions and more in Intellum’s Underscore webinar series.

Pets of Learning Science Weekly

We're making your email more adorable with this picture of Monty, the walking companion to the podcast-listening Damien S., who reached out to say he was looking forward to our upcoming podcast series (stay tuned!).

Send us your pet pics at

Wondering why we’re including animal photos in a learning science newsletter? It may seem weird, we admit. But we’re banking on the baby schema effect and the “power of Kawaii.” So, send us your cute pet pics -- you’re helping us all learn better!

The LSW Crew

Learning Science Weekly is edited by Julia Huprich, Ph.D. Our head of growth and community is Julieta Cygiel.

Have something to share? Want to see something in next week's issue? Send your suggestions: