Building Learning Environments to Engage Our Learners’ Attention Span

Focus on woman's hands as she studies book.

An interesting development within the expanding research on the brain and its functions is the study of attention spans in humans. Based on the new information and data found in these studies, we can build learning environments that are more interesting to our students as they are able to engage in the content more effectively since it aligns with the way their brains prefer to engage in the world.

On the flip side, if we think about the repercussions of not understanding attention span, we run the risk of creating content that is not absorbed by our students after they lose focus on the material. In both of those scenarios, we know that even when not thinking about it, attention spans alter the way we design and discuss learning—and we often default to pedagogy we have learned from our teachers and history.

The pedagogy of attention span

The problem with relying on past understandings of pedagogy when we talk about attention is that the amount and style of input a human must process now in this age is different from previous generations. Cultural changes altered our attention span, as it is partially a learned skill based on environment and input. Current research shows us while there is no final conclusive answer that works for all students, “The academic literature is replete with articles and books supporting and propagating the conclusion that lectures should adhere to the 10- to 15-min attention span that is characteristic of modern students.” (Bradbury, 2016, p. 1).

Additionally, when moved into the online space that suggested timeframe shortens. Quality Matters collected resources and concluded videos should last somewhere between 6 and 15 minutes. You can find the details in their article Video Length in Online Courses: What the Research Says. Based on this understanding, it can be gathered that while the research varies on the length and capabilities of attention, the designs used in the past that involve long intensive focus and attention may simply not fit with the mold of all our students now as our culture has changed over time. Plus, when we pull in the data regarding different learning needs of our students, like ADHD, ADD, and autism, we need to re-evaluate the best ways to pass information in a classroom setting. While this topic can be exhaustive, we can narrow it by focusing on how to accommodate the attention needs in your setting—especially if you are unsure of what your students need. Consider some of the following ways to engage the learner’s attention span.

Break up lectures

While the passing of information from instructor to students is an essential part of education, the way which we do this can look different based on modality, instructor preference, material being taught, etc. When looking at lecture as a teaching tool through the lens of potential variations in attention, you can accommodate it by simply breaking up the material into shorter sections. When online this could look like providing multiple videos instead of one so that the students can watch them when their schedule and brain permit. They also can focus in on the key points in the shorter videos, contemplate them, and then move on to the next topic when ready, which can help to prevent being overloaded by information. Initially this may look more cluttered, but it’s the same amount of content, just in smaller chunks. This gives the student more control to choose when they can fully give their attention to each one. Additionally, by doing this, activities or discussions can be added throughout the lectures to create a more interactive learning space to increase their retention.

Section out assignments

Large assignments such as a written paper are one of the common summative assessments used in a classroom. One of the biggest pitfalls of this type of assignment is the students who wait until the last minute to complete this—and do so in one sitting. This could be because of an assortment of reasons, but regardless of the reasons, a factor that comes into play is simply that they do not want to give the attention necessary to thoroughly delve into the assignment until they have no other option as it pulls their attention away from other life obligations.

Students crave more bite-sized content. As Carr (2011) explains, “calm, focused, undistracted, the linear mind is being pushed aside by a new kind of mind that wants and needs to take in and dole out information in short, disjointed, often overlapping bursts—the faster the better.” (p. 9). One way we can increase the amount of attention and focus students give an assignment is by breaking it up into sections throughout the course that they pull together near the end as a large assessment. If learners build the assignment in sections, it helps them feel the connectivity of the content. It also helps them to invest time in the work in a way that doesn’t feel as intimidating. Through this change you will achieve the same learning goals in a slightly different (and potentially better) way.

Capture attention through personalization

While your students might not be excited to listen to some of the course information, you can find ways to personalize it to increase their willingness to give attention and therefore learn. By showing your excitement on a topic, letting the students engage and create their own questions about the topic to discuss, or even building the information around topics of interest, we can make it more engaging. Personalization allows the learner to value the information more as it is more pertinent to them, and they become part of the learning process.

Carr (2011) discusses this personalization but frames it through the mental storage system, “storing explicit memories and, equally important, forming connections between them, requires strong mental concentration, amplified by repetition or intense intellectual or emotional engagement. The sharper the attention, the sharper the memory” (p. 193). Through this method students invest in the material more and attention comes with that emotional investment and motivation.

Through these methods you can begin to create a more accessible and engaging learning space for your students. Of course, you want to focus on what works best for your modality and learners, but overall, these options can be used in different scenarios with minor adjustments. When we pay attention to our student’s needs, we create more effective learning spaces for all—even if it is different from what we were told was effective instruction methodology back when we were students ourselves.

References:

Bradbury, N. (2016). Attention span during lectures: 8 seconds, 10 minutes, or more? Advances in Physiology Education. 40(4), 509-513. https://doi.org/10.1152/advan.00109.2016

Burch, B. (n.d). Video length in online courses: What the research says. Quality Matters.

Carr, N. (2011) The shallows: What the internet is doing to our brains. W. W. Norton & Company. ISBN-13: 978-0393339758.

Author: Jessica Pierce, Instructional Designer

Jess enjoys the science behind learning and cognition and how it applies in multiple modalities, including eLearning. In the off hours, she likes spending time with her husband and three kids, going out for coffee, or running the occasional road race for the “free” shirt (to counteract the caffeine).

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