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How to Combat the Short Attention Span of the Modern Learner

You are focused on a task at work when automatically, your hand slowly starts moving for your phone.

“I wonder if I have any messages…”

“What’s happening on Facebook…”

“I should probably check my calendar…”

You check your phone, browse your familiar apps and then try to get back into the task that you were working on. Five minutes later you look outside to see if anything interesting is happening. You then once again, try to get your head back into your task.

Can you relate?

Our attention spans as humans can only last a certain amount of time. Think about the whirlwind of distractions that surround us daily... text messages, YouTube videos, phone calls, Facebook notifications, the list goes on.

According to research, smartphones have left humans with such a short attention span that even a goldfish can hold a thought for a longer amount of time (Watson, 2015). Crazy right?

Whilst today’s distractions are a reality, we can fear less because there are ways that we as learning designers can combat this. Rather than seeing short attention spans as an obstacle, think of it as a standard for how you design your learning solutions. Does the learning solution take the right amount of time? Is the learning solution entertaining enough to hold the attention of your learner?

Here are some practical tips on how to achieve this standard and create effective and engaging learning solutions. Solutions that make the temptation of checking a mobile phone a distant after thought that remains in the depths of the unconscious.

1. Bite Sized Learning

Often humans struggle to focus on one task for a long period of time. So what better way to combat this than to create learning solutions that are quick to complete? Your learning solution may have a sizeable number of outcomes to achieve though think about how you can split these outcomes up.

Studies have shown that attention spans fade after 10 minutes (Meyer, 2014). If you have a course that takes one hour to complete, consider splitting up your module into six 10-minute components allowing them to complete each in their own order and when it suits them. This will enable focus on content, one section at a time and will allow your learner to have a break and regain their attention between each component.

Example of module split into bite-sized components.

2. Make it Fun

Recently I attended the Learning Technologies Conference in London. One of the key points that stuck with me from the number of seminars I attended was the importance of creating solutions that elicit feelings of fun and enjoyment. One of the speakers spoke about a staircase in a shopping centre that had each step turned into a piano key that created musical sounds when stepped on. The staircase was filmed throughout the day and the amount of people that took the stairs compared to the escalator increased dramatically. This is a great example of incorporating fun into a task with the outcome of successfully encouraging people to be more active and use the stairs. Think about how you can achieve this with your learning solutions. Whether it’s incorporating humour, gamifying your solution or providing your learner with interesting challenges. There are endless possibilities in how you can achieve this.

Example of module screen incorporating elements of fun and humour.

3. Keep it Simple

To ensure that you maintain the attention span of your learner, it is important that you cut out unnecessary elements and information. Imagine completing an online course that has a large amount of text, multiple photos, graphs and audio all happening at once on the same screen. You can imagine that there is the potential that you will give up and decide to put that task to the end of your list (that is way too much to do in one hit!).

If you make each screen straightforward and propose a simple challenge, the learner is way more likely to complete it there and then in the moment. Think about how you can split your elements over multiple screens so that you don’t overwhelm your learner and have them running for the hills when they begin the task.

Example of module screen with a simple design.

How do you hold the attention span of your learner? We would love to hear how you are designing your solutions to combat the decreasing attention span of learners today. I hope that this added value to your craft and that your learning solutions become triumphant over the distractions of our modern world.


Meyer, S. (2014). Attention Spans and the Modern Learner. Retrieved from

Pappas, C. (2015). 7 Tips to Beat Short Attention Spans in eLearning. Retrieved from

Watson, L. (2015). Humans have Shorter Attention Span Than Goldfish, Thanks to Smartphones. Retrieved from

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