Amy Potthast | Instructional Coach & Designer | Learning Design Studios

Attention and Learning

Some things we know about attention:

This graphic includes the image and the explainer text together, focusing the learner’s attention.

1. Attention doesn’t multi-task.

I might think I’m multi-tasking when I am “listening” to the Slate Political Gabfest and writing a blog post at the same time, but I’m really doing one thing…then forcing myself to stop…then focusing on the other thing. John Medina says in Brain Rules that it takes 50 percent longer to do anything if you’re trying to split your attention with something else.

Of course you can multi-task — for example, you can walk and talk. Your working memory isn’t engaged in walking so it’s free to help you keep track of what you’re saying.

2. You can learn only when you’re paying close attention.

Ever been to a workshop with side-talkers? People who chat throughout the workshop, then complain they’ve not learning anything?

Well, there’s actually a scientific reason that they didn’t learn anything.

Turns out, you have to pay attention in order to learn.

When you learn something new, your brain’s wiring changes a bit to accommodate the new thing you learned. But if you’re not really paying attention while you’re learning, your brain’s not really going to rewire itself.

The learning you do while your attention is divided might stick with you in the short-ish term but not in the long term.

Norman Doidge writes in his book The Brain that Changes Itself about Merzenich and Jenkins‘ research on monkeys’ learning. They found that automatic learning did result in some remapping of neuropathways, but the remapping didn’t last long unless the monkey paid close attention during learning. S. E. Hidi called this kind of attention “late attention.”

Okay, this is NOT new news! But even adults need a reminder sometimes that you can’t talk and listen at the same time, and still expect to learn something.

3. Educators can call learners’ attention to important concepts.

In Building Expertise, Ruth Colvin Clark spells out several strategies for educators and instructional designers to:

  • spotlight the key instructional content,
  • make the most of learner attention spans, and
  • minimize distractions.

Beyond clearing your throat and moving across the room to stand near the peanut gallery, you can do things like:

  • ask questions to focus learners’ attention on what’s coming up that’s important, in reading, e-learning, or in a live classroom;
  • use headings and subheadings (etc.) in print instructional materials;
  • keep graphics and descriptive text in proximity to each other — so that learners aren’t having to go back and forth between the image and its explanations.
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