November 16, 2015

Maximizing Learner Attention

By Virginia Nguyen, Pharm.D., PGY1 Community Pharmacy Practice Resident, Johns Hopkins Outpatient Pharmacy

We’ve all heard it before. There’s a right time for everything — and learning is no exception. Research has shown that there are some physiologic reasons why some people are ‘morning people’ and some are ‘evening/night people.’  Our individual circadian rhythms affect our attention, executive functioning, and memory.1,2 Some studies have shown that those who are left brain-dominant perform better in the morning while those who are more right brain-dominant perform better in the afternoon.3,4

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While it is interesting to note how some may perform better in the morning compared to others, it is impossible for an instructor to optimally time a presentation or lecture to coincide with every learner’s physiological predilection. What is more important for educators to focus on are the factors that they can control that will maximize learning. Below are a few tips and tools for educators to make the most of their learner’s time and attention.

Keeping it short and sweet
In the day and age of social media, texting, and email alerts going off on a smartphone, laptop, and/or tablet, chances are instructors are perpetually competing for their learner’s attention. A recent Microsoft study found that the human attention span has decreased from 12 seconds in 2000 to 8 seconds in 2015.6 In order to make every second count, be sure to start your educational activity with a hook to gain the audience’s attention. If you aren’t able to gain their attention off the bat, there’s small chance you’ll be able to sustain it for the entirety of your instructional activity.

Breaking it up
Studies have shown that adults can only sustain attention for about 20 minutes at a time.  Experiencing multiple stimuli during those 20 minutes help to maximize and maintain attention.7 Think about movies or the NFL RedZone- both of these sources are able to grab the audience’s attention by producing multiple stimuli (different angles and clips) every few seconds or 1-2 minutes at the most. The effect multiple stimuli enables the learner to stay focused longer than if a single stimuli is used for minutes on end.

For most lesson plans, showing multiple movie or football clips isn’t feasible; however, breaking up the lesson plan by creating different stimuli related to the instructional objectives can help the audience recharge and stay engaged. Consider for every 4-5 minutes of instruction, there should be a change.  Perhaps interrupting the lecture with a discussion question, active learning technique, or different way to present the material. Use media clips or pictures to break up the monotony of your PowerPoint presentation. Using different stimuli not only maximizes the audience’s attention but also their ability to learn.

Get up and move
Taking physical and mental breaks are just as important. There’s a reason why the MLB created the 7th inning stretch, and it’s not just so we can sing ‘Take me out to the ballgame.’ Studies have shown that physical activity can help to boost energy levels, attention, and academic performance.5 Although recess has been phased out of schools across the country, consider giving the audience a physical recess or break from the material to digest and recharge. The audience doesn’t necessarily need to run laps around a track or do jumping jacks, but simply getting up to walk around will help your audience get back on track (no pun intended).

Timing it right
You, as the instructor, are not the only one accountable for maximizing audience attention (spoiler alert: the audience member is also responsible for this). While it’s impossible to sync instructional activities to account for all left and right brain-dominant audience members, what is possible is encouraging each audience member to identify times during the day they are most attentive and to use that time to enhance their learning. Depending on the audience member’s ‘peak’ time for being most awake and attentive, recommend they use this time to focus on tasks that require his or her full attention and problem-solving skills. For the avid coffee drinker, it’s best to think of it this way: save the tasks that require a high level of thinking once your cup of coffee has kicked in.

While we can’t teach a lecture or activity to match the physiologic and biochemical changes of each student, we can make sure that what we teach captures their attention and energy- no matter what time that is. Depending on the length of your instructional activity, consider the impact of grabbing your audience’s attention, interjecting active learning strategies every few minutes, and incorporating breaks to maintain it.  Encourage your audience members to identify times that they are most awake and attentive and to use that to their advantage in completing learning tasks.

  1. Schmidt C, Collette F, Cajochen C, et al. A time to think: Circadian rhythms in human cognition. Cogn Neuropsychol 2007;24(7):755-89.
  2. Wile AJ, Shouppe GA. Does Time-of-Day of Instruction Impact Class Achievement? Perspectives in Learning: A Journal of the College of Education & Health Professions, Columbus State University 2011;12(1):21-25.
  3. Klein, J. Attention, scholastic achievement and timing of lessons. Scandinavian Journal of Educational Research 2001;45(3):301-309.
  4. Millar K, Styles B, Wastell D. Time of day and retrieval from longterm memory. British Journal of Psychology 1980;71:407-414.
  5. Singh A, Ulijtdewilligen L, Twisk JW, et al. Physical activity and performance at school: a systematic review of the literature including a methodological quality assessment. Arch Pediatr Adolesc Med 2012;166(1):49-55
  6. Watson L. Humans have shorter attention span than goldfish, thanks to smartphones [Internet]. London (UK): The Telegraph, Telegraph Media Group Limited. 2015 May 15 [cited 2015 Oct 23].
  7. Islam K. Attention Span and Performance Improvement [Internet]. Cary (NC): Training Industry, Training Industry, Inc. 2013 1 Mar [cited 2015 Oct 24].

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