What You Need to Know About Encouraging Learners to Pay Attention

You’re in a meeting with some stakeholders discussing a new e-learning course on a really dull topic. Obviously, you have questions for them and ideas to share, but you quickly realize that all they want you to do is to take a Subject Matter Expert’s 200-slide PowerPoint and put it on the LMS. No attempt to pare down the content or align it with the training goal. No reimagining the source material to add interest or engagement.

You want to object to this approach because you know it’s dull and pointless. Learners aren’t going to pay attention to, let alone learn from, four hours of auto-advance lecture material. So maybe, in the interest of gaining more control and creative leeway, this is a good time to share the rather shocking claim that human attention spans are rapidly decreasing, down from twelve seconds in the year 2000 to just eight seconds today. That means our attention spans are even shorter than that of a goldfish!

Holy cow! Well, now you have everyone’s attention.

Goldfish gif

While I’m no expert on brain science or attention span, this claim has always struck me as being a little … pardon the pun … fishy. And sure enough, a few minutes of internet sleuthing confirms that not only is human attention span not fully understood—neither are goldfish attention spans! So it seems the oft-cited claim that humans only have an eight-second attention span isn’t actually backed up by evidence. It’s a myth, and it’s one that learning professionals have relied upon for years, usually with the honorable intent of winning the battle against dull e-learning.

Unfortunately, perpetuating this hyperbolic claim—one that drips of confirmation bias and oversimplifies some pretty complex topics—can also paint you and your training team into a credibility corner over time, as your organization realizes that: 1) they drove themselves to work in an hour of traffic today, so they must have more than an eight-second attention span, and 2) simply making something shorter doesn’t mean people will pay attention to it or learn anything from it.

So that leaves us with two big questions: What can you say to your stakeholders? And what are some credible, evidence-backed techniques you can use to help your learners pay attention?

I decided to pose these questions to an expert in this area, so I sat down with Julie Dirksen, founder of Usable Learning and author of Design for How People Learn. The rest of this article is the highlights reel of our decidedly nerdy conversation.

On the Topic of Attention Spans

Me: Obviously, we can’t really process or recall information we haven’t paid attention to, therefore attention must be important for learning. Can you talk a little more about that?

Julie: Attention is an important factor for many kinds of learning—but not all. Take learning to play the guitar, for instance. It involves skill-based practice and you need to focus while you are first learning a skill, but your mind can wander while you’re doing ongoing practice—for example, scales—to build your muscle memory. People can learn certain tasks through repetition, automating their behaviors and movements so they become unconscious. But at first, you need to pay close attention. After a while, you’re good.

Me: So if there are different kinds of learning, does that also mean there are different degrees of attention?

Julie: Patti Shank has written some really useful articles on attention, and she points out that there are five different kinds of attention spans, each requiring a different level of effort. Focused attention is involuntary—like reacting to a loud noise or a touch—so it’s a no-brainer. But as willpower becomes a bigger factor, the level of effort increases. Once you’re asking learners to pay attention to two things at once (i.e., divided attention), the level of effort becomes more difficult.

Types of Attention Span

On the Topic of Immediacy

Me: I know there are lots of ways to get people’s attention, but which ones work the best?

Julie: One of the most powerful ways to get people to pay attention is to create a sense of immediacy. So, if I ask how interested you are in watching a five-minute video about printer repair right now, your interest is probably zero. But if I asked you that same question when your printer is broken and it’s 5 o’clock on a Friday and you need to print out your timesheet and turn it in before you can leave work, you’re going to be much more interested in watching that printer repair video. That’s because it’s relevant to your current situation and there’s a sense of urgency to it. People don’t pay attention to the video because it’s flashier—they pay attention because it’s immediately useful.

Me: So how can I create that same sense of urgency in a typical e-learning course?

Julie: Well, one thing you can do is give people a scenario they need to solve by using the information you’re giving them. This creates an immediate need for that information.

On Interest and Engagement

Me: Okay, so I get how needing to solve something would make paying attention to that information feel more urgent. But the topic of printer repair brings up another important factor for me: interest.

Julie: Yeah, it may seem ridiculously obvious to say this, but it’s just a whole lot easier to pay attention to things that are interesting. And if you’re interested in something, your capacity to pay attention to it is almost unlimited,

Me: But what about when the content you’re sharing is really boring?

Julie: People can force themselves to pay attention to things that aren’t interesting. But I don’t think it’s an accident that we put attention into monetary terms—paying attention. Basically, when you’re asking people to spend their willpower on something boring, that comes at a price. Most of the limits we talk about aren’t about how long people can pay attention, but that’s probably almost unlimited. The limits are more about how long people will force themselves to pay attention to something they don’t find interesting. I wouldn’t bet on that being longer than twenty minutes, and it might only be a minute or even a few seconds.

If your training is always about delivering information—rattling off dos and don’ts or dictating policies and procedures—rather than giving folks a chance to get hands-on, make decisions, and practice their skills—there’s nothing interesting about that. You’re missing out on an opportunity to engage them. Engagement with your material helps people pay attention.

On Importance

Me: When I think about training that tends to lack engagement, I also think about things like compliance training that’s designed to address “what if” scenarios—things that could put the operation at great risk but happen relatively rarely. These types of courses are important for many reasons, but that sense of immediacy and interest isn’t really there.

Julie: A lot of folks work in orgs where they’re told that everything they’re given is important. This course is mission-critical. Understanding this information over here is vital. Fatigue just settles in and people eventually find none of it worth their attention.

Think about ways we can signal importance. Social proof—what others in the organization are doing with the information you’ve given them, how it’s made them better at their job—things like that definitely grab people’s attention and demonstrate that the information you’re sharing is important. However, text-heavy screens lacking visual design, learning objectives that are written in instructional design jargon—these are ways of signaling that the information you’re sharing isn’t important or useful. People instinctively know that if it was really important and useful, you would’ve made some effort to make it easier, more professional-looking, more relevant and personal.

If something is genuinely useful or interesting, people probably won’t have to struggle to pay attention to it.

Summary

For those of you who’ve read Julie’s book or attended her sessions at industry events, you might be familiar with one of her favorite catchphrases, “One of the primary responsibilities of instructional design is the ruthless management of cognitive load.”

It strikes me that encouraging your learners to pay attention requires some pretty ruthless management. Not only does the content you’re sharing and how you’re sharing it need to respect the demands on your learner’s time and attention, but that content also needs to be useful and engaging in a way that signals its importance.

If you enjoyed this topic, there are lots of industry pros in addition to Julie who are talking about the science behind attention span, memory, and so much more. Check out folks like Clark Quinn and Patti Shank, to name two. Julie also has a course built in Storyline 360 on this topic. If you’re interested in learning more about it, visit Designbetterlearning.com.

What are you doing to encourage your learners to pay attention? Share your thoughts with me in a comment, below. I’d love to hear what’s working for you!

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21 Comments
Judy Hext
Håkan Ström

The e-learning business have a long time of "book on screen", click to continue.. to account for and the solution is partly in clear and well researched articles like this and a debate about what is actually mostly waste or should simply be made available as one way information media and not measured or interactive at all. I totally agree that length of training is not the crucial factor for the learning effect. In fact it could be argued? that for instance microlearnings trends might even worsen the attention problem for the students/users long term. But when "e-learning" in corp world is used to describe "book on screens", it takes a while to re-capture the true meaning of e-learning and its complexities as well as its real opportunities. I also agree on that development for le... Expand

Andrew Ratner
Andrew Crotty
Matt McGuire
Ian Bell
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