Why attention spans are short and five useful tricks that show how online learning can improve them

We can all agree that one of the biggest challenges of learning online is that there may be a lot of distractions that can hijack our attention. However, attention spans in learning depend on many more aspects than just distractions surrounding us.

So, what is an attention span?

Attention means the state of focusing on a task before becoming distracted and span defines the length of time it can last. We get distracted when our attention is diverted by another activity or sensation without our control.

Studies show that the average attention span online is around 8 seconds. So, how does that affect learning, and does it mean that at least every 8 seconds something new and interesting needs to happen on the screen for students to pay attention to it?

We need an eLearning course that will be more interesting than any other distraction coming our students’ way. By adding engaging stories, surprise elements, and a lot of interactivity to our learning content, we can improve their attention span and keep them engaged long enough to have students successfully complete the learning content.

Let’s move one step back. Why do students let their attention slip while learning online? It could be that the distraction is more interesting than the learning material they are looking at. The benefits of learning online are that a user has the opportunity to choose when and where they will take the course. They can use their own pace and repeat certain parts of the material if they need to, without interrupting other students in any way. Distractions can be considered a great danger but there are many ways to overcome that with smart planning and interactive design of learning content.

There are many advantages and disadvantages of learning online

The biggest advantage is that students can tailor the learning process to their needs. Online learning can be accessed anytime from any device, and all materials and links can be attached to centralized learning content in a variety of formats. Interactive content, videos, images, and sounds can explain content much easier than books or a teacher so there are infinite possibilities to engage students. It also leaves more space and resources available to the provider of the learning content to develop new material, rather than having to constantly repeat already existing lesson content.

The disadvantages are related to the generality of the content and the inability to ask personalized questions. However, those challenges can be overcome by planning personalized Q&A sections or online calls with subject matter experts and implementing them in the course.

Attention span is one of the trickiest but also one of the best challenges to eLearning.
Since there are many ways to increase students’ attention span by developing interactive stories and innovative branching scenario courses, experts have made many great tools and hacks to keep students focused for longer periods of time. This way, we can say that a short attention span is what makes online learning interesting in the end.

Does eLearning really work?

According to the research compiled by the learning expert, researcher, instructional designer, consultant, speaker, and writer Will Thalheimer, in terms of learning effectiveness, it is not the modality (classroom or online learning) but the learning methods that make the difference, by far. Interactivity, feedback, repetition, real-life examples, and other researched factors show much better results than simply presenting information, regardless of whether it is done online or in a classroom.

The good thing about eLearning is that there are many more possibilities and a wider spectrum of interactive and design elements that can be used. So, to answer our question – eLearning really does work!

There is one more conclusion from this study – research showed that a combination of online learning and live classes was a win-win situation for students. However, in many aspects and despite some variability, eLearning gave much better results than classroom learning because of the variety of learning methods.

Here are some of the best ways to make eLearning interesting and to improve the attention span when learning online.

Gamification can improve attention span

Who wouldn’t like to play games instead of studying? Maybe we can do both at the same time. The gamification element in learning content can help keep students engaged for a longer period of time with different tasks, assignments, interactive elements, and collecting points on each step.

Can we get distracted while taking a test or solving a problem? Maybe, but it’s very difficult. By not just putting out content on the screen but making a student think about it first and solve problems before learning the solution helps them remember better and of course –
keeps their attention focused on the topic of the content.

So, what is the best learning style for gamification?

Visual and kinesthetic type learners will enjoy gamification the most, since game elements implemented in the learning environment will give them the opportunity to see and try to find the correct information by themselves. That is the reason why gamification has been so popular in recent years.

With a new generation of students who spend most of the day looking at their phones and scrolling through fast visual content constantly, gamification learning content can be very beneficial and help extend their attention span.

Examples of how to use gamification for improving attention spans:

  • Adding challenges and rewards learners can win every time they finish a new chapter, definition, or quiz – competition is a great motivator.
  • Creating a story – make the learner the hero of their own story.
  • Adding branching scenarios so that learners feel in charge of choosing their way around the content.

Storytelling that evokes emotions

Let’s think about the last time we watched a movie and fell asleep. Could we sleep through our favorite movie? Of course not. It doesn’t matter how tired we are, if the story is interesting, if we are emotionally involved with the character and dying to find out what happens at the end, how could we fall sleep or get distracted in any way?

Boring studying days are over. Now, by using storytelling, any boring subject can be brought to life with a well-written story incorporated in it.

Examples of how to use storytelling for improving attention spans:

  • Add characters.
  • Make a student the hero of the story.
  • Use a difficult to understand curriculum as the main challenge that a hero needs to overcome in the story.
  • Give your learning a story structure: add characters, define the setting in the beginning, develop the plot, add a conflict, provide a resolution.
  • Set up a conflict in your content story and use popular, well-known public characters or animals to present the situation so everyone can understand and relate.

Surprise elements to stimulate the brain

Every once in a while, we can surprise learners with something unexpected. Let’s explain a bit. So, the amygdala is the part of our brain that is activated by stories, surprises, attraction, motivation, and interest.

However, this part of the brain gets used to things very quickly and stops responding to familiar information.

The easiest way to understand it is to remember the last time we were very interested in some topic that we just encountered for the first time. As soon as we started reading or writing about it, our interest suddenly dropped, even if just a little. Every time we hear or see something totally new, synapses in our brain flare up and want to resolve the problem, understand, and learn the new information.

Great examples for using surprise elements:

  • When solving a quiz or having to answer a question in the course, by adding a “time bomb” on the screen and by counting down the time, we can both surprise the learner and give them a limited time to answer, which will not leave any time to move their attention away from the content.
  • As a surprise element, we can use smart humor.
  • Adding “fun facts” related to the curriculum to arouse curiosity.

Sounds for emotional engagement

The same way storytelling engages learners emotionally, songs and different sound effects help with engagement while learning online. Imagine a movie trailer without sound or a cartoon without a voiceover. The sound element of moving visual content has the ability to bring that content to life. Why not use that element wisely and, instead of using words, engage learners with sounds they recognize?

Examples of how to use sound in eLearning content:

  • Add short sounds to clickable buttons.
  • Add sounds to accompany correct and incorrect answers.
  • Add short songs that will follow the story behind the content.
  • Add relatable music.

Microlearning to the rescue for short attention spans

Microlearning is designed specifically to reduce the time of focused learning and to give students a place to have a break and then continue with a new chapter, without having to go back to try and figure out where they left.

By separating content into smaller chunks, we can get the most out of the time when the student is most engaged and have organized breaks when they are needed. In that way, we navigate the learning experience.

It is more likely that students will keep their attention on the course and stick with it if they know the end of the chapter is only one screen away, rather than thinking the course will take another few hours to finish.

Using real-life examples will help students understand better and keep their focus on the topic

The easiest way for learners to relate to the new information that is presented to them is by using examples they can relate to. Often students remember the general information but because they do not relate it, to something already known, they forget it very fast.

To integrate a certain curriculum, it is best to connect the topic and new information to something that is already familiar, so explaining through examples is one of the best methods to use in learning in general. However, it is a great tool in eLearning because we can use visuals, animations and sounds to describe things more realistically.

How to use examples in eLearning:

  • Introduce characters that will represent the main subjects of the topic the learning content is about.
  • Use examples of how and where the information presented has already been used and the resulting outcome.
  • Use fun and out-of-the-box stories as examples because these kinds of unusual examples tend to stick with the learner for a longer period of time.
  • Make screenshots of anything that you want to explain related to using a computer or a program. It is the easiest way for both teacher and student to learn.
  • Use visual metaphors, explain words with pictures.
  • Create a case study.
  • Create or use a video example.

Online learning methods can increase the attention span

In conclusion, attention spans are getting shorter and shorter as technology improves. Luckily, online learning uses modern and effective methods that can increase the attention span and teach students easily while having both fun and informative aspects.

There are advantages and disadvantages to eLearning. However, studies show that there are many more advantages than disadvantages. One of the best ways to use online learning is by adding many fun and interactive elements, and the best way to do that is by using: gamification, storytelling, surprise elements, sounds and real-time examples.

Author: Ivana Ištvanović

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