You know all those classic arguments couples have that begin with “I told you but you never listen!”? In truth, the listening part is not the issue, the remembering (or absence of) is the real problem. Paying attention is no easy thing and grabbing and holding someone’s attention is even trickier.
A fairly recent study calculated that the average attention span of a person has dropped from twelve to eight seconds, rendering us below the focusing capabilities of goldfish. Apparently this decrease is due to the fact that
Heavy multi-screeners find it difficult to filter out irrelevant stimuli — they’re more easily distracted by multiple streams of media.
On the plus side, the report found that people’s ability to multitask has dramatically improved. Researchers concluded that the changes were a result of the brain’s ability to adapt and change itself over time and a weaker attention span is a direct consequence of going mobile.
What instructional designers should know about brain wirings…
For e-learning designers who face the challenge of creating quality modules that facilitate information retention and transfer it’s important to know how the brain works when it comes to attention – this being the first step in any learning process.
When faced with the challenge of processing the huge amounts of information it is being presented with, the brain brings forth several control measures. First it prioritizes the different types of stimuli – it chooses what information to recognize and what to ignore as well as establishing a hierarchy of what item deserves how high a level of concentration.
The brain is also wired to connect any new information to prior knowledge to aid the understanding of a new idea as well as to get a better picture of broader concepts.
Last but not least, the amount of time a person spends focusing on a certain topic is also important – some things can be learned in a few minutes, others take much longer than that and also require some pause.
Since concentration means effort and that is no favorite of anyone’s, it’s important for difficult information to be presented in an engaging way.
… And about the cortexes involved
What neuroscience tells us is that in order for people to start paying attention, the stimuli need to make the cut. The brain’s capacity to discern between these stimuli is located in two different areas: the prefrontal and parietal cortexes.
The first is located behind the forehead and spanning to the left and right sides of the brain and has to do with conscious concentration. It is an important wheel of the motivational system and helps a person focus attention on a goal. The parietal cortex lies right behind the ear and is activated when we face sudden events requiring some action – it is what kept the human race alive through numerous encounters with those who considered us dinner.
Of course, throwing in a really big threatening dinosaur at the beginning of an e-learning module is not the way to go but it helps to keep in mind that people become focused when action is required of them or when they see how a certain learning experience might help them achieve a personal goal.
How attention relates to memory
Attention is a cognitive process that is closely related to another very important aspect of learning: memory. A certain learning intervention is deemed successful when the participants are able to remember and apply what was taught. Otherwise it can be the best experience ever but with no real knowledge value.
The brain’s permanent goal is to filter the stimulus that is the most immediately relevant and valuable, so it is easiest to pay attention when information is interesting. Take televised documentaries for example. If the presentation, the script, the imagery and the voice-over are all working together, even the life of armadillos who don’t do much over a few months period can seem utterly fascinating.
For effective learning to take place, participants must focus their attention on the learning activity. It is the designer’s job to help them do so by including various elements and levels of interactivity. Simply presenting the information can prove highly counterproductive since typically the mind wanders up to 40% of the times we read something.
Tips for getting learners’ attention
There are, of course, a lot of great ways to get and keep learner attention. Here are a few examples:
- Using emotionally charged storytelling – there is nothing as engaging as a good narrative, emotionally spiked at its most important points;
- Getting the learners involved with the content – interactivity is a must if the goal is to get people on board with learning;
- Using great visuals – the reason for our decreasing attention is that we are assaulted by imagery; carefully choosing what and how learners see has great barring on their involvement with the program;
- Linking new concepts with familiar ones – the brain works by making connections between what we already know and what is novelty to us. Designers should facilitate this process by including the best suited comparisons in the content;
- Keeping it simple – if something is interestingly presented, people will search for more information on their own. Cluttering screens does not help them learn more but prevents them from taking away what is essential.
If the learning material is not engaging, learners will have a hard time paying attention and that will lead to poor results. In order to create interesting material, instructional designers need to be mindful of what neuroscientists have to say about how the human brain works and include meaningful situations and opportunities throughout the modules.
Raluca Cristescu is a Faculty of Letters graduate with over ten years of experience in corporate training, focused mainly on soft skills for customer service and direct sales.