Our attention spans are shrinking.

You’ve heard it before. It’s something repeated so often that many of us simply accept it as fact. But is it true? Are our attention spans really getting shorter?

The truth is more complicated than you might suppose. As leaders in the e-learning and event spaces, we recognize the importance of getting to the bottom of this. Because even if there’s only a sliver of truth to it, shrinking attention spans have massive implications for your learning and development initiatives.

Separating Humans from Goldfish

We live in an era with easier access to information than ever before. 2021 is a learner’s paradise—or so it would seem.

But misinformation abounds, and it spreads like you wouldn’t believe. Why? Because it grabs our attention. Slick, punchy half-truths and exaggerations get clicks.

You may have heard that the average human attention span is shorter than that of a goldfish. These sources claim that the domestic freshwater fish has a lead of 1 second on 21st-century Homo sapiens. Goldfish clock 9 seconds, and humans 8.

Countless articles on the web have parroted this eye-catching yet outlandish claim as though it were fact. But you should beware of data dredged up from murky waters.

If you take a closer look, you’ll find that nearly all such claims point back to the same source: a 2015 report by Microsoft Canada. Seems legit, right? But where and how did they get their data?

Microsoft cites a study by Research Brain as the source of their claim. But here’s the thing: their numbers appear to have been pulled out of thin air.

Don’t take it from us. Plenty of personalities have chimed in stating that Research Brain’s data is fictitious. Here is Patti Shank’s take from eLearning Industry. Here is Simon Maybin from the BBC.

But we haven’t set out to disprove Research Brain’s claims. On the contrary, we think that we all have something to learn from them. The point we want to make is this: your learners aren’t goldfish. You just have to keep your content more engaging than a fishbowl.

A Useful Lie

The goldfish analogy might be baloney. But the fact so many people have cited it suggests that even if it’s not completely true, it’s believable. There may be a kernel of truth to it.  

Think about it. The way we engage with contentbe it recreational or professional—has changed dramatically over the course of our lifetimes. There is no doubt that we are more distracted, and our consumption habits more fragmented, than ever before. It’s hard to stay focused.

On the surface, it certainly seems as though we have shifted toward short-term content.

Plenty of people still read books. This study by Pew Research Center suggests that millennials are in fact more likely to have read a book in the past year than older generations. But even most bookworms will admit it’s a whole lot easier to zone out to Netflix at the end of the day than to crack open Moby Dick.

And yet in this there is a contradiction. Sure, Netflix and similar streaming services typically feature shorter content. But streamers tend to binge their TV shows. We might not always be down to watch a 3 ½ hour-long slow burn like The Godfather Part II.  But some of us would jump at the opportunity to spend an entire Sunday devouring episodes of our favorite show.

The rise of binging culture flies in the face of assumptions we make about our attention spans getting shorter. Perhaps our attention spans are as strong as they have ever been. But the way we prefer to take information in has changed.

What This Means for e-Learning and Events

Our approach to e-learning must change to accommodate this new mode of consumption. Traditional models of education are now antiquated and ineffective in the contemporary workplace.

Right now, microlearning is one of the biggest buzzwords in the e-learning space. If you haven’t heard of it, it’s exactly what you’d guess by the name: online learning delivered in bite-sized, more digestible chunks.

Incorporating principles of microlearning into your LMS should be no problem at all. Here are some ideas to get you started:

  • Brief (less than 10 minutes) videos
  • Infographics
  • Quizzes
  • Learning games

An emphasis on quick, memorable bursts of information should underpin your entire education strategy. Incorporate it both in your text-based and video content.

Take a look at this blog. You’ll be hard-pressed to find a paragraph consisting of more than a couple lines. And this is no accident.

Modern learners don’t generally take well to dense walls of text. Keep it punchy.

How about your video content? You don’t have to say goodbye to hour-long webinars or hybrid presentations. But you might want to reconsider how you spend that hour. Consider pausing every ten minutes or so to engage your audience – perhaps with a poll or a Q&A session.

Keep in mind that video content is inherently more engaging than your typical textual, curriculum-based learning materials. This is especially true when it is live and interactive. Use this to your advantage. Pepper visual components throughout your LMS.   

Millennials have comprised the largest chunk of the US workforce since 2016. Before long, a majority of your learners will have grown up with smartphones in their hands—true digital natives.

Even if the data regarding their attention spans is spotty at best, there’s no denying that young people prefer to sponge up information in novel ways.  Keep the guidelines we’ve laid out in mind, and you’ll see the difference it makes.

Reach Out to CommPartners

We understand what it takes to make a truly stellar learning experience. Let us help you craft yours.

Our award-winning Elevate LMS can be the foundation of your organization’s education strategy. Leverage such features as badging, comprehensive reporting, and monetization to deliver effective and impactful e-learning content.

Our fully managed virtual and hybrid event services integrate seamlessly with Elevate. CommPartners can extend your reach.

Let’s start a conversation. If you’d like to know more about what we can do for you, get in touch with Meghan Gowen at mgowen@commpartners.com.

For more insights on how to get the most out of your LMS and organize engaging virtual or hybrid events, keep up with CommPartners on Twitter and LinkedIn.