Our attention is a valuable resource. Not too long ago, three major networks scheduled weekly events like “TGIF” and “Must See TV” to capture it. Now there is a plentitude of channels and apps that we can watch anytime, anywhere. We sneak our binge-watching between texts, Gchats, Slacks, and emails—and maybe even the occasional old-fashioned phone call.
As the Berkeley Economic Review notes, our present-day technology exposes us to an overwhelming amount of information, strategically aimed at capturing our attention. Popular entertainment and social media platforms generate revenue by connecting users to content, increasing the number of users, and increasing the time they spend interacting with each other and the platform. But the more information we receive, the more scarce and limited our attention becomes.
This presents a challenge for learning designers. Attention is often described as the link between perception and memory; if we pay more attention to something, we are more likely to remember it later. But with so many other options available, how can L&D programs compete to capture and maximise learners’ limited time and attention?
How entertainment raises the bar for engagement
Entertainment platforms understand that users are more likely to pay attention and overcome distractions when things are relevant, when things change, and when their brains and emotions are actively engaged with the content.
Think about the titles that are currently displayed on your Netflix homepage or the people you see most frequently on social media. These platforms use algorithms to prioritise content by relevance. They capture our attention by showing us things that they think will interest us.
Relevance is key to learning, too. To capture learners’ attention and motivate them to complete the learning experience, you need to develop content that they find useful and interesting. Adult Learning Theory (Knowles 1990) explains that adults are more interested in subjects that have immediate relevance and impact on their job or personal life. On a very basic level, you can add introductory content that highlights “What’s in it for me?” But if you want learners to continue to pay attention, consider weaving relevance throughout the experience. Ask Subject Matter Experts and people who work in the field to help you:
- Rewrite objectives in a common language that ties back to job-related tasks and skills
- Add realistic examples to frame your content and interactions
- Insert scenarios that highlight common challenges, misconceptions, or lessons learned
- Rewrite “multiple choice” questions as “realistic choice” questions that reflect how the information is used on the job. For example, instead of “What are the symptoms of a heart attack?” you could ask “Nicole is having trouble breathing, feels lightheaded, her jaw hurts, and she feels like someone is squeezing her chest. What is happening?”
In addition to the content you create, take steps to tag and organise content to improve the navigability of your Learning Management System (LMS). You can even create a variety of learning paths to feed content to learners who show interest in specific areas, even if it’s outside their normal role. You still need to write content at the correct level for your target audience.
Don’t fall into the trap of building overly basic content for everyone but you can find out what your learners are interested in and use that to fuel future training and career opportunities.
How often have you quickly checked into TikTok or Facebook only to realise that 20 minutes have gone by? These media use the power of novelty to capture your attention, sometimes to the point where you completely lose track of time.
Learning designers can use the power of novelty to drive curiosity and increase attention. When training is predictable or nothing changes, learners lose focus. But when they are surprised or see something unexpected, they are more likely to remember it.
The vast majority of training courses begin with a title slide, learning objectives, and then slides of information, maybe divided into a few chapters that follow the same structure. Rather than setting learners up for the same old experience, you could start with an unexpected fact, a mystery question, or totally new information. As explained by Daniela Fenker (2008), “Most teachers go over material from the previous class before moving on to new subject matter, they should probably do just the opposite: start with surprising new information and then review the older material.”
In addition to delivering content in novel ways, consider adding novelty to the cadence of learning. Periodic fresh starts, or “brain breaks,” refresh learners’ attention and their ability to absorb information. It might seem counter-intuitive to provide breaks when learners’ attention is so limited already but think of how much more productive you are when you have time to grab a cup of tea, water, or coffee between classes or meetings. That little dopamine hit can be the difference between a great idea and an accidental nap.
From tennis to home repair, to math homework, the best YouTube explainer videos capture your attention and guide you along the path to acquiring new skills. You can even carry the video with you and use it as a step-by-step guide while you are engaged in the task at hand. These videos intellectually engage you because they are useful, interesting, appealing, and easy to process and absorb.
When we are paying attention and are intellectually engaged, we are more likely to remember what we have learned. But our brain has limited capacity to process the information it receives. The amount of intellectual effort this process requires is known as cognitive load. In order to retain information, you need to balance this cognitive load—the information should be interesting enough to keep you intellectually engaged, but not so complicated that you get overwhelmed by the effort it takes to understand it.
When you’re looking for inspiration, you can search YouTube for presentation strategies that intellectually engage learners and balance cognitive load. Look for videos that illustrate some of Mayer’s Multimedia Learning evidence-based design principles (Mayer 2021). For example:
- Using audio with visuals
- Dividing learning into smaller chunks
- Adding visual (arrows, circles, highlights) or audio signals to highlight key aspects of the content
- Allowing learners to control the rate (play and pause) at which they learn
- Presenting information in a more informal and conversational tone
Video games completely capture our attention and our emotions. Immersive storylines and active participation draw players in, and the elements of challenge and re-playability keep players coming back for more. It is not just about playing the game; it is also about the feeling you get when you fail or succeed and how that drives your motivation to continue the experience.
Learning designers can capitalise on the power of story to capture attention and emotionally connect people with the content. A powerful emotional connection drives learners’ motivation and engagement with the information you present. Plass and Kaplan (2016) noted that evidence indicates that “emotions are inherently motivational and interconnected with cognitions.” Stories can be big or small—short vignettes, quick dialog interactions, individual or group case studies, or even interactive scenarios.
You can also drive emotional engagement by adding games to the learning experience. You can simply add a game as a knowledge check, or flip the entire presentation of content to be more gamified. A variety of game mechanics can meet the needs and preferences of your target audience. If your learners are driven by competition, set up Trivia or Jeopardy! challenges. If they are driven by curiosity, engage them in a branching path game that takes them down several different paths and lets them see the outcome of their choices.
As technology continues to advance, the competition for attention is only going to increase. Instead of trying to squeeze learning in between the spaces in peoples’ attention, we can repurpose the strategies used by entertainment media to better create a more engaging and effective learning environment.
– Stephen Baer is Co-Founder of The Game Agency with eLearning Brothers, which is represented exclusively in Asia-Pacific by ITC Learning.
Fenker, D. 2008. Learning By Surprise
Kihlstrom, J. F. and Park, L. 2002. “Cognitive Psychology, Overview.” In Encyclopedia of the Human Brain, edited by V.S. Ramachandran, 839-853. Cambridge, MA: Academic Press.
Knowles, M. 1990. The Adult Learner: A Neglected Species (4th ed.). Houston, TX: Gulf Publishing Company.
Mayer, R. E. 2021. Multimedia learning (3rd ed). New York: Cambridge University Press.
Plass, J. and Kaplan, U. 2016. “Emotional Design in Digital Media for Learning.” In Emotions, Technology, Design, and Learning, edited by S. Y. Tettegah and M. Gartmeier, 131-161. Cambridge, MA: Academic Press. https://doi.org/10.1016/B978-0-12-801856-9.00007-4.
Tafarodi, R. 2020. Paying attention: Focus and distraction in the digital age.
Watson, A. 2021. Are we entering the era of ‘Netflix and skill’?