We humans have always had a tendency to find our models in the animal kingdom. We can be free as birds, stubborn as donkeys, happy as clams, grumpy as grizzly bears, drunk as monkeys, fast as deer, clumsy as elephants, proud as peacocks or poor as church mice (not sure if this last one is more offensive towards the Church or the small rodents).

The list is, of course, a lot longer and, thanks to Microsoft, getting longer all the time. You are wondering when did the software company get into the English language business? They didn’t. But they did carry out a study on human attention span and the results showed that alongside everything else we are as focused as a goldfish. Well, almost.

The research was done on 2,000 participants in Canada and studied the brain activity of 112 others using electroencephalograms. The results were that the average human attention span has fallen from 12 seconds in 2000 — or around the time the mobile revolution began — to eight seconds. Goldfish, meanwhile, are believed to have an attention span of nine seconds. (I’m wondering how they came up with that number; luckily I will forget all about this curiosity in five seconds and will be able to sleep like a log tonight).

The Romans knew their learning

So how could this reality be addressed when it comes to corporate L&D?

Even though there were no studies back then (and no mobile phones for that matter), the Romans had the solution for this, summarized in the classic saying

“Repetitio mater studiorum est.”

– Repetition is the mother of learning.

Of course scientists took this and put in timing and an operational name: spaced learning.

According to Wikipedia spaced learning is “… a learning method in which highly condensed learning content is repeated three times, with two 10-minute breaks during which distractor activities such as physical activities are performed by the students. It is based on the temporal pattern of stimuli for creating long-term memories reported by R. Douglas Fields in Scientific American in 2005. This ‘temporal code’ Fields used in his experiments was developed into a learning method for creating long-term memories by Paul Kelley, who led a team of teachers and scientists as reported in Making Minds in 2008.”

Spaced repetition comes to complete the process as this “learning technique incorporates increasing intervals of time between subsequent review of previously learned material in order to exploit the psychological spacing effect”.

Subscription learning – the modern repetitio

So we went from animal idioms to a scientific study, through ancient Rome to another academic research. How’s that for your short attention span?

Well, we are not done yet because we should take a look at how subscription learning is an effective way for companies to make use of the modern appetite for internet and repeatability. If mobile devices are responsible for our very limited focus, they can also help us work with it.

These days there is a subscription for anything – from daily pics of cute cats to new o scientific breakthroughs and every sale both online and offline. So it only makes sense to use enrollment as a learning tool.

Subscription learning, as its obvious name points out, gives an intermittent stream of learning-related interactions to those who are in the mailing list. These short online training sessions can be made up of a wide variety of teaching-related modules such as content presentation, Q&A, role-play-based questions, job aids, themes for reflection, assignments, free discussions.

This type of learning engages the concept of bite-sized nuggets and usually takes up less than five minutes. The modules are intentionally scheduled over specific periods of time to support learning, and most often repeat the information or present it by a different method ensures that it actually sticks.

Putting a number on repetition

Apparently a gold fish breathes on average sixty-six times per minute. Yes, somebody counted that and since we also learned about his focus span — nine seconds — it seemed fair to know this as well.

Also, the above paragraph was an example of repeating a small piece of information while adding another.

The question that matters to us now is how often should employees be engaging with e-learning content? If you ask trainers who usually deliver classroom sessions, the response may be once a month, once a quarter or twice a year. However, with micro-learning, the brevity of the modules and the huge benefits that come with repeating learning lead to an altogether different learning pattern.

The answer to ‘how often?’ is: very.

This method works daily, every few days or weekly. Longer than that and spaced learning gets too spaced, losing information and engagement. One way to go about it is for those enrolled in the program to go through four or five nuggets of e-learning before answering some questions or going through simulations that require applying that specific information.

Once employees are engaging with these materials for five to ten minutes daily over a period of a month there will be a greatly improved engagement and knowledge retention.

The point is for the L&D department to act towards employees as if they had subscribed to a learning “newsletter” from them — teaching them small bites on a schedule — every two or three days. This way the old Latin saying can become present-day reality.

Author: Roxana Mitu

Roxana is a learning and development professional with over 10 years experience in corporate training.