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Online Learning: What’s your Attention Span?

Even the best online learning programmes become worthless if you cannot keep your learners’ attention. Unfortunately, this isn’t an easy task in today’s stimuli-packed world.

It’s not unusual to find your mind wandering when you should be focused on something. In fact, we spend nearly 47% of our waking hours thinking about something other than what we are doing.

Constant notifications, new TikTok dances and cute cat videos bombarding our digital environment only make it harder to stay focused. Is it any wonder that your learners might get distracted when they are supposed to be working through your training programme?

What makes things even more difficult is the debate surrounding attention spans! Various online articles have shared their suggestions on how long the human attention span is in today’s environment, ranging from eight seconds to multiple hours.

But don’t fret! We’re ready to give you some truths and effective tips on how to create a distraction-proof learning environment. Before then, let’s look at the extent of the problem of attention spans in online learning.

What is an Attention Span?

Attention span is the amount of time humans spend concentrating on a task before they become distracted. ‘Attention’ refers to the state of focusing, and ‘span’ defines the length of time it lasts.

Our attention gets distracted when it’s diverted by another activity, stimuli or sensation, typically without our control.

Attention spans grow in length the older we get. In fact, childhood development experts say that a child’s attention span can only reasonably be expected to stretch for a maximum of three minutes for every year of their age.

The Attention Span Crisis

It’s an unfortunate fact that even with the strongest willpower in the world, we simply cannot concentrate on one thing for very long.

Evidence varies hugely when it comes to the length of our attention spans. Some estimates suggest that we can only keep our attention on tough or ‘boring’ tasks for between 10 and 20 minutes.

Distracted learner with short attention span

Others argue that our attention spans are closer to 5 minutes. Meanwhile, there are various articles online stating that we now have the attention span of a goldfish. This claim, however, has been heavily critiqued.

Even though there is no definite research or a set number, it’s clear that our attention spans are decreasing.

If this trend continues, we will soon find ourselves struggling to engage with even the most basic activities. And when it comes to our attention span online, the evidence is even bleaker: 17% of all page views last less than 4 seconds.

Reasons Behind Our Deteriorating Attention Spans

So, why is it that our attention spans are decreasing? Let’s explore a few theories:

1. The ‘Everything Instantly’ Culture

Gone are the days when we had to wait to read about developments in the world. We no longer have to wait for the morning paper.

Instead, news is now pushed to us, directly into our pockets, onto our TVs and even into our smartwatches. This ‘everything instantly’ culture means that we can simply point, click and download millions of resources, books, movies and games instantly.

As a result, we have more distractions around us than ever before. With so much choice, it only makes sense that our brains struggle to focus.

2. Changing Expectations

Technological advances and today’s most popular mobile apps are designed for instant access and our short-term attention. Think about TikTok and Vine videos or Instagram and Snapchat stories.

AI robot finding resources

All of these apps or features allow us to watch or share short videos. Imagine the effect this has on both our attention spans and expectations. We now expect something exciting to happen within the first seconds of watching a clip.

Similarly, technology is evolving faster than ever before. Everything is becoming more accessible, whether that’s a touch of a button or new voice technology. Now, simple voice commands give you answers to everything you need to know within seconds.

As a result, we no longer have to think or research to get the information we need. It’s almost as though we are being conditioned to shorten our attention spans!

3. The ‘Can’t Sit Still’ Culture

Are you one of those people that can’t just sit still and do nothing? You might be a victim of ‘always-on’ culture!

If you get your mobile out and browse social media as soon as you find yourself with an empty two minutes, you may have forgotten how to stop and pay attention to the moment.

Try to sit still for two minutes and do nothing. No Facebook, no Twitter, no news sites, no texting, no watching TV and no music.

If you find it a struggle, chances are your attention span has been damaged by modern technology. Don’t panic, though. Carry on reading for ways to improve your attention span.

How a Poor Attention Span Affects Learning

Learning requires our full attention. After all, we cannot learn how to solve complex equations if we have one eye on our phone. We need to dedicate our minds to the task at hand to retain what we learn.

People with short attention spans typically struggle to focus on tasks for longer periods of time without getting easily distracted. As such, no matter your line of work, a short attention span can be deeply problematic.

In fact, you may notice several negative effects, including:

  • Poor performance at work or school
  • Inability to complete daily tasks
  • Missing important details or key information
  • Difficulties communicating effectively or focusing on the conversation at hand
  • Inability to practise healthy habits

However, compared to other forms of learning, online learning can heighten these unfavourable effects. After all, we’re learning using our laptops, mobiles and tablets. These very devices are the ones typically trying to distract us.

Creating Online Learning with Short Attention Spans in Mind

Now we know how important it is to pay attention, we need to put a plan in place to prevent all the distractions of everyday life. Luckily, there are various online learning tactics you can use!

1. Gamification

Whether it’s office banter that is distracting or a general lack of enthusiasm and interest in the topic, gamification can come to the rescue! Gamification means applying engaging game mechanics to your training to make it more fun and engaging.

As such, when adding game mechanics, such as Badges, XP and Leaderboards, into your learning management system (LMS) or other learning platforms, the effect on engagement is enormous.

gamified laptop

By making difficult tasks more palatable and enjoyable, gamification can help minimise distractions, reduce cognitive load and increase attention spans when you are learning online. After all, research indicates that our brains are more active when we do something we enjoy.

For example, as soon as your learners realise that the more XP they acquire, the higher up the Leaderboard they move, they’ll be eager to pay attention for longer. When their learning is fun, engaging and motivating, a short attention span suddenly becomes less of a threat.

2. Microlearning

Microlearning is a powerful learning method where you deliver information in small ‘bite-sized’ chunks. This means that your online learning units typically only take 5-10 minutes to complete.

That’s ideal when our attention spans are too short to focus on a full 60-minute seminar. Just like longer eLearning units, microlearning can take various formats. As such, you get the same engagement but in shorter, more focused bursts.

In fact, these smaller training interventions are an excellent way to ensure you focus on one topic at a time. This is essential in a world where humans are now more selective of how they spend their focus.

While most of us claim we are good at multitasking, it’s actually a cognitive impossibility. The human brain cannot handle multiple tasks at once. Instead, it switches rapidly between them. Focused units ensure your learners are not straining their brains and use their attention spans effectively.

By separating content into smaller chunks, we can get the most out of the time learners are engaged. Similarly, it gives learners a chance to have an organised break to recharge their attention spans before continuing to the next unit.

3. Flexibility

Online learning comes with some great advantages compared to in-person seminars. Generally speaking, materials on your learning platform remain there until you decide to update or delete them.

Gone are the days when your learners needed to gather, label and organise their printed learning materials themselves. This creates a risk of your learners losing one of the papers or placing it in the wrong folder.

With online learning, everything is neatly organised in one place. You can provide an open library or limit access as you see fit. This helps to create an effective structure for your learners.

This added flexibility means that learning content is at your learners’ fingertips whenever is the optimal time for them to learn. They know where to find additional resources or how to repeat a course if their attention span failed them the first time around.

4. Personalisation

Your limbic system plays an important role when it comes to forming long-term memories. The limbic system includes the amygdala and the hippocampus, among other systems.

New information has to pass through the amygdala to reach your hippocampus. From there, it can be sent to long-term memory storage.

That’s all well and good, but what does this have to do with personalisation? Personalisation helps you to ensure new information reaches the right areas of the brain effectively.

Information with personal meaning or context is more likely to become relational and reach your hippocampus. As such, personalising your learning content helps you to grab your learners’ attention, and for longer.

5. Emotional Engagement

Emotionally-charged stimuli capture your learners’ attention better. Similarly, the human brain remembers an emotional experience better than stimuli without an emotional attachment.

With this in mind, your training programme should encourage emotional responses. There are various ways to do this, including storytelling and narrative.

Storytelling ensures boring training days are over. After all, if we are emotionally involved, how could we get distracted in any way? Similarly, by using storytelling, you can bring less-exciting topics to life through the power of a well-written story.

Storytelling is a natural human brain pattern as our brains are hardwired for narrative. As such, if you weave narrative into your course, people will be more likely to explore and remember the whole thing.

6. Comparisons

The human brain pays more attention to information or stimuli that are new or different. As such, it’s natural that we get curious about something new or unpredictable.

This means you need to design online learning content that stands out from the information your learners already know. This helps you to get their attention for a long time.

However, you cannot steer too far away from your topic, or the course content becomes irrelevant. Luckily, you can add an element of ‘new’ while still keeping things relevant by making comparisons.

Comparisons can either use real-life examples or information your learners already know. This helps to keep things familiar, whilst also generating a new level of interest.

7. Visual Content

A picture, as they say, is worth a thousand words. Images are easier to digest and faster to understand. In fact, the human brain processes images 60,000 times faster than text. We are naturally inclined to pay attention to them.

Similarly, videos are effective in driving engagement and creating memorable experiences. Viewers retain a whopping 95% of a video message, compared to 10% when reading text.

These benefits make it clear that visuals are excellent aids for learners with short attention spans. Images help you to draw learners in and add meaning to your words. Similarly, you can (and should) replace long chunks of text with relevant visuals where possible.

However, the emphasis is on the word ‘relevant’. A Nielsen study found that users only pay attention to images that contain relevant information and ignore visuals used to decorate or ‘jazz up’ pages.

Improving Your Attention Span: 5 Tips for Learners

A well-designed online course ensures that your learners can explore content in a structured and distraction-free environment. This alone can help your learners to stay focused for longer.

However, there are some ways your learners themselves can improve their attention spans. Let’s have a look at five ways to get your mind focused!

Attentive listening illustration

1. Practise Attentive Listening

One way you can strengthen your attention span is to practise active and attentive listening. Attentive listening helps the mind’s ability to receive and absorb information.

But how can one improve their listening skills? Some tips include:

  • Practise ‘whole body listening’. The next time you are in a meeting, make a conscious effort to keep your body language controlled instead of fidgeting or occupying your hands.
  • Listen without interrupting. Avoid cutting off the person you are speaking with. Focus on what they are saying rather than on what you are going to reply.
  • Spend time just listening to something. Often, we listen while using our other senses, whether that’s watching TV or our phone screen. As such, devote half an hour to simply listening.

2. Read More

On top of attentive listening, you can hone your mind’s ability to concentrate by reading more. In fact, reading is known to affect our brains positively.

There are not many tricks or tips when it comes to attentive reading. All you need to do is carve out the time you need. Develop a routine where you read every day for 15 to 30 minutes.

This could be during your lunch break, before work or before bed. Whatever time you decide to read, the key is to block out any distractions that could divert you from paying full attention.

3. Physical Wellbeing

On top of mental exercise, you should focus on your physical wellbeing. After all, the benefits of exercise are vast, including your ability to focus better.

In fact, studies show that exercise improves attention and focus in people with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), where symptoms include restlessness and trouble concentrating.

With this in mind, make sure to get moderate levels of exercise multiple times a week. Even a short 30-minute physical activity can help you to increase your attention span by improving your cognitive control.

In addition, stay hydrated! Dehydration can decrease your ability to think and impact your focus negatively. In fact, even mild dehydration can impair many aspects of brain function.

4. Meditate

Meditation is an excellent way to train your mind to focus. After all, it helps you to redirect your thoughts. Even short daily meditation sessions are a helpful way to work towards a better attention span.

Studies suggest that meditation has vast benefits, one of them being improved focus. As such, continued meditation can lead to better concentration and improvements in sustaining attention.

5. Stay Engaged

It’s all too easy to slip into a habit of simply listening to a seminar or scrolling through content. This can easily lead to distractions taking over, as you are not actively forcing yourself to engage.

Instead, try asking questions or taking notes during in-person lectures. Or reach out to your peers or Experts using the social learning features on your learning platform. Set yourself a goal before the session and then hold yourself accountable throughout.

Not only will you learn more, but you will then be in a better position to share your expertise. And the more engaged you are with the topic at hand, the easier it will be to stay focused.

Final Words

Getting your learners’ attention and keeping it has always been difficult, but things have only gotten worse as our attention spans have started to shrink.

As a result, if your online learning programme isn’t engaging, there is a very slim chance they will stay engaged. Luckily, there is a lot that can be done to rectify this!

Building your learning platform with engagement at its core is a sure way to tackle the prevailing attention span crisis.

Our 150 nifty learner engagement tips help you to get your engagement strategy right!

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