Giving Attention to Attention


How do we get and keep our learner’s attention?

Understanding attention (the focusing of consciousness) gives us the ability to support learning.  Here are some key points to help you gain your learner’s attention.


  1. Selective attention

Attention is a limited resource; selective attention occurs when we focus our attention on something.  When we select specific inputs to process while avoiding distractions in the environment.


Apparently some irrelevant stimuli may be processed during periods of focussed attention.  For example, you could be processing some eLearning on your tablet while travelling in a bus or train with a relatively low level of noise.  You can remain focused and continue your task despite hearing the buzz of nearby conversations.



  1. Susceptibility to distractions is lowest when a task engages one’s full attention

A distraction is task-irrelevant information.  A person uses selective attention to ignore distractions.  It is easier to get distracted when a task involves a low level of interest.  Conversely, it is easier to remain on task when the task has a high level of perceived interest.  In other words it is easier to get distracted during boring or repetitive tasks.



  1. Multi-tasking divides attention

We all know this.  When you are trying to concentrate on two or more channels at the same time, your attention is divided.  Divided attention appears to use more mental resources because:

  • The tasks may be conflicted, such as listening to one thing and watching another
  • The brain must accommodate two or more tasks at the same time


Research shows that divided attention reduces performance on a task (Described in the Eysenck and Keane test, 2013)



  1. Split attention in learning materials increases opportunity for distraction

When multiple sources of information are not well integrated it causes the split attention effect (Mayer 2001).  An example is a voice—over before an animation.  Or instructions that have to be continuously referenced and are physically separated from the problem task.  This requires learners to hold one set of information in working memory while processing another stream of information.  The solution is to integrate all required sources of information in one place.



  1. An abrupt change can capture attention

You can capture attention via any change in stimulus, which is why doing some things differently to expectation works so well.  Experienced learning designers will often attract attention with something unexpected, innovative or surprising.  In eLearning, you may need to do this often.



  1. Sustained attention requires something meaningful, challenging or special

Maintaining attention during an eLearning session is about focusing on an activity for an extended period of time.  We can do this by concentrating on experiences that are relevant to the learner in their own workplace.  In another case it can be a story of a hero who overcomes odds, a well-executed animation for explaining a complex concept; or a challenging problem to solve.


Phrases to remember when designing on-line learning (modlettes);

  • Arousing curiosity
  • Interjecting emotions
  • Collaboration and knowledge sharing
  • Games


Attention, memory and learning have a complex relationship.  By delving into how attention works, we can design and support learning in more appropriate and innovative ways.


When we talk about classroom learning we often say, “The biggest enemy of learning is the talking teacher.”


When designing Modlettes or on-line learning we say, “The biggest enemy of learning is continuous reading of text . . . boring.”


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