In today’s age of extreme and relentless information overload, capturing the attention of one’s learners is a challenge, to say the least.  This is especially so for E or mLearning, where an app, social media, or an E-commerce website is just a click away, and there is no teacher present to look disapprovingly at the student when their attention wanes.  In fact, so distracting has our world become, that our attention is under siege at unprecedented levels, and we need to make a concerted effort to cultivate the skill of paying attention to almost anything.

So how do we help our learners pay attention to our courses? There are a number of techniques learning designers can use, but before we explore those, let’s examine exactly why attention is so important in the learning process.  

Learning, Attention and Memory

It goes without saying that the very first step in learning something is to pay attention to it in the first place, but how exactly does the process work?

Every second of your waking life, your brain is working hard to process information, filtering the 11,000-odd pieces of information that hit it every second into a more palatable 2000. Of that 2000 pieces of information, the brain still needs to choose the most immediately relevant and valuable information, so it prioritises the most engaging and interesting stimuli.  It also takes ‘shortcuts’ by connecting new information to prior knowledge and experiences.  

Once the filtering process is complete, your brain will then subconsciously select what should be transferred to your short, and long term, memory through the Reticular Activating System (RAS).  The RAS sends only the most relevant information to the conscious brain, usually through the amygdala, the part of the brain that is responsible for emotion.   

The Key to Capturing Your Learner’s Attention

Information, then, that is engaging, interesting, relatable to prior knowledge/understanding, and is emotionally charged is far more likely to transferred to the short, and long term, memory of the brain.  So is that the key to capturing learner’s attention?

In a nutshell: yes.  The best way, however, to translate these principles into learning design is via the following:

Stories and Emotions

Our ancestors passed all of their knowledge down through stories, and since that time, our brains have developed a deep affinity to them.  Encasing your learning objectives within a well-written story has been proven to significantly increase the amount of attention a learner pays to your course, especially if your story is emotionally engaging.  Stories often help learners to ‘connect the dots’ between learning content and past knowledge and experience, allowing the brain to make some shortcuts, and the content to seem more relatable and personal.  

Pictures, not words

Prior even to storytelling, mankind developed an acute sense of sight; something that we have nurtured until present day.  As a result, our brains are far faster, and more efficient, at processing visual information than written information.  With the average attention span these days being just 8.25 seconds, the inclusion of a striking image is by far the safest bet for garnering attention.

Intrigue

The brain responds best to engaging and interesting stimuli, but what is interesting and engaging to today’s learner? Whilst that’s a difficult question to answer, something that is intriguing, or different, is far more likely to grab a learner’s attention than more of the same.  Suffice to say, repetition is out, and surprise is in, when it comes to capturing your learner’s attention.  

It is possible to capture your learner’s attention in today’s information age – you just have to make sure that your course is the most engaging, interesting and relevant ‘distraction’ they have from the real world!

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