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How to capture and hold learners attention span

On one hand, the latest word is that our attention span is growing shorter and shorter due to all the technological developments. We forget stuff on our grocery lists, we forget names, we can’t possibly remember birthdays if they are not correctly (and publicly) specified on social media and when we are at work it’s just a nightmare to keep track of everything and sift through all the information and stimuli constantly coming our way.

Yet we have no problem binge watching our favorite shows and remembering everything and everybody in there – take Game of Thrones for example. It is insanely complicated with a huge number of characters, plots, sub-plots and sub-sub-plots and yet I have not heard complaints about keeping up with it.

So our attention span is not really the issue but rather how it is captured and held.

Instructional designers especially feel the need to up their game and release training material that has the power to attract, engage and ultimately lead to information assimilation. Since gruesome killings, graphic sensuality and Jon Snow cannot be used in corporate learning (although beginning a learning session with the already famous “you know nothing” scene might actually make an impact), they have to resort to the findings of neuroscientists.

The neuroscience of attention

Neuroscience postulates that when it comes to attention, it’s mostly about the Reticular Activating System (RAS). Located in a very low region of the brain, acts as a filter for all incoming stimuli and decides what we ignore and what we mind.

There are four main categories of things that trigger or focus the attention of the RAS in the human brain:

  • physical need
  • self-made choice
  • novelty
  • your name.

Apart from these, the RAS also picks up on anything that is in contrast or that renders emotion. If it didn’t do its job, we’d be overly stimulated and could not focus on anything really. The fact that the structure of this neural system is by now common knowledge and overly used in online marketing is probably the reason we so often feel flooded or overwhelmed by all that comes our way by means of media (classical or social).

Read more: The neuroscience of attention and why instructional designers should know about it

Still, in the right hands, this information can do a lot of good and since learning is always a positive development, e-learning craftsmen can employ it wisely.

3 Ways to capture and hold learners attention span

First of all

According to the brain specialists, one of the things that prompts information transmission is novelty. Our minds seem to gravitate around and crave novelty. All that is unknown or different is interesting. It must be known and understood, that’s human nature.

Children are very obvious in this curiosity and preference for everything that is unfamiliar and peculiar. Adults may show a milder manifestation but their brains are wired in the same way so in order to design learning material that they will naturally pay attention to and internalize, L&D specialists need to constantly come up with different presentation modes.

Boredom is the enemy of information acquisition. Extensive text in e-learning is not advisable, regardless of how good the writer is. We live in a very visual age and people skim rather than read so if the point is to really reach them, wording should be kept to a bare minimum.

Also, since the brain is trained to quickly recognize patterns and ignore anything that is predictable, routine or repetitive it is best to make (even small) changes in background color, text positioning and imagery.


Another way to get and hold audience attention is by inspiring emotion. It is a well-known fact that emotion drives attention which in its turn drives learning. The ultimate goal of any educational program is that those enrolled in it remember what it was all about and are able to apply that information in the appropriate environment.

Memories are contextual so making sure the whole experience is memorable is a good way to ensure it is worth everybody’s while. Simulations, role-playing, cooperative projects, contests, tournaments and everything else in the gamification tool case, all have the capacity to provide excellent contextual memory prompts.

AR and VR also have immense potential in getting the learner to not only understand but feel various situations and get the seemingly real-life experience.

It’s also good to keep in mind that activities involving social interaction provide the highest levels of emotional support. E-learning is essentially a personal, solitary solution but it can be easily linked to online communities, forums and specialist guilds so that there is a setting for collaboration and sharing experience.


Last but not least, exemplify. Learning has long moved from the purely theoretical realm. Our brain understands best by decrypting real (or at least believable) situations. It’s been my experience that when new information is presented, regardless of how well it is explained, people will need at least one example of how it is used.

„Every particle attracts every other particle in the universe with a force which is directly proportional to the product of their masses and inversely proportional to the square of the distance between their centers.”

You probably don’t remember this exact definition from school but I am almost certain that if you hear it is Newton’s law of universal gravitation you immediately picture an apple falling on that funny looking 17th century wig. A solid example backed by good visuals has the power to get learner attention.

This is why experiential learning is so successful – it combines all three magic ingredients: novelty, emotion and practical example. Especially with e-learning which is not instructor lead so participants can’t really ask for clarifications, incorporating relevant examples is compulsory.

Read more: The secret sauce for efficient training: experiential learning

All in all

It’s hard to believe that any learning module will ever be as attention-grabbing as modern blockbusters are but still, blaming low information retention rates on a dwindling attention span just doesn’t hold. People have the capacity to be immersed in a presentation, it’s up to the designers to make it interesting enough.