Avatars and Instruction: How Pedagogical Agents Can Improve Digital Learning

With a Guide from Claire Cook, Learning Scientist, McGraw-Hill Education

Human beings are deeply social creatures. So how can we use this characteristic to improve learning outcomes for students? Researchers have been studying whether incorporating pedagogical avatars into digital learning contexts benefits student learning. The results show that the advantages of including agents far outweigh the disadvantages. Our Applied Learning Sciences team has put together a guide that summarizes some key findings from recent research on pedagogical agents and what it tells us about how we can utilize avatars to optimize learning. You can find the full guide at the bottom of this blog. Continue reading for an overview of the research findings and benefits that agents provide to students while learning.

Which agent attributes matter most for optimizing learning outcomes?

While researchers have experimented with a wide range of agent roles, they have been shown to be most effective when they:

  • Actively signal the learner’s attention to relevant information through commentary, gestures, facial expressions, or other methods
  • Behave in genuinely social and interactive manner
  • Have some level of perceived expertise or knowledge: both peer-like and expert-like agents can be effective

The full guide contains more information on additional details that matter when incorporating agents in learning systems.

Is it simply a morale boost — or something more?

In science learning environments, the addition of pedagogical agents has shown significantly increased motivation and self-efficacy beliefs for young adolescent learners. But there are more benefits tied to agents than just improved motivation. Researchers have noted that the presence of pedagogical agents may support learning outcomes by decreasing anxiety and also helping to orient the learner’s attention to key elements and concepts embedded in the instructional content. Overall agents improve learning by both directly supporting cognitive processing and by creating a more positive, satisfying learning environment. Reference the full guide for more details on the effects of avatars on morale and other areas.

Are agents more effective in certain subject areas than others?

The incorporation of pedagogical agents into STEM subjects has been shown to yield greater benefits than within humanities fields. This may be due to the increased experimentation and abstract thought required of STEM or the larger number of STEM research studies that have been conducted. See the full guide for further information on research studies surrounding pedagogical agents and how they affect student learning outcomes.

Full Guide:


About the Applied Learning Sciences Team

The Applied Learning Sciences (ALS) team is dedicated to the application and translation of foundational and cutting-edge learning science research toward product development. Working collaboratively across all Mcgraw-Hill Education PreK-12 teams, ALS draws upon the vast body of research in fields such as neuroscience, education, cognitive science, psychology (including educational psychology), learning analytics, applied linguistics, anthropology, computer science, and philosophy.