Learn how breaking up presentations and activities into smaller, varied chunks, and that giving learners frequent brain breaks will help lift and expand attention span.
- So, do I have your complete and undivided attention? Not an easy thing to get these days. So when designing an E-learning program, it's important to think about how you can improve and sustain the quality of the learner's attention. For learning to happen, a single focus of attention is essential. We know this from our own experience as students. Every morning before I went to school, my mom used to remind me: now pay attention to the teacher! Did you hear something like that when you were a young student? Well, turns out: good advice! My mom has been backed up by neuroscientists.
You see, the more focused our attention is to incoming information, the stronger our memory and recall of that information will be at a later point in the future. Now, paying attention sounds like a simple enough thing to do, but it actually takes quite a lot of brain power. Think about when a sudden loud noise gets your attention. Your reaction is involuntary, much like a reflex, and you might feel a jolt of adrenaline and your body tenses. Paying attention takes energy. Reflexive attention is one of our primary tools for survival: a brain function that evolved to keep us alert to danger in the environment.
But there's also another kind of attention: attention that is active and voluntary. We can choose what we pay attention to, guided by our own personal interests and needs. If we want to learn then we must choose deliberately and purposefully to focus our attention on the lesson and filter out competing sensory inputs and perceptions that might distract us. But let's be clear: this type of active, selective, and focused attention requires deep levels of motivation, effort, and energy.
And research has shown that, no matter how hard we try, it's very difficult to pay attention to one thing for more than about 20 minutes. Sometimes our attention diminishes simply because we're not motivated, interested, or engaged enough to stay with the lesson. Sometimes it's because we become easily distracted by competing stimuli: an incoming email, or a text notification, or the random thought about the fun we'll be having on the weekend. And even when we are fully motivated and engaged and experience no distractions or interruptions, the capacity of our brain to pay attention and sustain focus can fall away rather quickly.
When our brains are working hard, and paying attention is very hard work, they consume a tremendous amount of energy. As a result, our brains simply get tired, just like any other part of our body after strenuous exercise. Ah, but the good news: yes, the good news is that our brains can be easily refreshed and will bounce back after even a short break. And while there are limits to learner attention that no design can overcome, designing to optimize attention during a learning session has best practices and guidelines based on the science.
As a designer, you can support and sustain learner attention in a number of ways. You can stimulate learner motivation, or minimize distractions, or build breaks into the learning process. For now, let's focus on stimulating learner motivation. Motivation: that feeling of get up and go is deeply linked with the release of dopamine, which not only generates a sense of enjoyment and flow from within us, but also activates the hippocampus and gets the brain's attention and memory mechanism going.
While it's true that motivation comes from within, it's also true that we can design for and create conditions to induce motivation throughout the learning process. How do we do this? Well, first of all, get learners to tap into their why. Ask them some simple questions at the outset of the learning process. Questions like this: get ready, you may want to take a note to write these down. Why do you want to learn about this subject? What do you already know about this subject? What do you expect to learn that's new for you? How will you learn what's new? How will you apply what you intend to learn in future situations? As learners find the answers to these questions, the stronger their motivation will be.
This is how you assign responsibility for the learning to the learner where they make it their own. Encourage learners to keep track of their motivation as the learning process unfolds. Is it growing stronger, or is it diminishing? Have them bear witness to their own growing mastery of the subject matter. Remember, a motivated learner is an attentive learner, and this motivation-driven attention can then be further sustained by minimizing distractions and breaking up the learning process.
To wrap up, please take a few moments and ask yourself the same questions I asked earlier. Tell me, tell yourself when it comes to the neuroscience of you learning design, what's in your why?
- How your brain learns
- Keeping learners' attention
- Generating connections and meaning
- Instilling a growth mindset
- Spacing learning for improved memory