Beating the Goldfish: 4 Strategies for Keeping Your Learners’ Attention

April 21, 2015
Two pairs of hands clasped together.

8 seconds. I know that I have 8 seconds to get your attention. For some of you, I might have lost you already.

Research (I probably lost a few more of you just by using that word) says that the average human attention span has dropped over the last 15 years from 12 seconds to just 8. Sadly, the average attention span of a goldfish is 9 seconds. The goldfish is winning.

How could this be? Well, in the last two decades, technology has allowed us greater means to access information. In the time since you started reading this post, have you checked your email? Perhaps your phone has buzzed, alerting you that someone commented on the picture you posted to Facebook. Maybe you just had a random thought run through your head about the goldfish you had when you were a kid. Maybe this paragraph got a little long and you decided to skip to the next one.

If you did skip forward, well, thank you. You just proved my point. The last paragraph was way too long to read. I probably would have skipped forward myself.

So what does all of this talk about attention spans have to with learning? Well…EVERYTHING!

The Research & Development team here at CPI is always looking for ways to increase the impact of our training. In case you hadn’t heard, this year, we are implementing some program enhancements, and one part of these enhancements is looking for ways to increase skill and knowledge retention of our programs.

When your Instructor Certification program lasts four days, fighting against that 8-second attention span can be a challenge. As part of our enhancement project, we’ve kept a focus on how the design of the program will keep the participant motivated to learn.

Here are four key strategies we considered:

1. Make the content meaningful.
We know that many people who take the Nonviolent Crisis Intervention® program are required by state or federal policy to take a course on physical restraint. But mandatory training does not always equate to meaningful training from the perspective of the learner. The required component of the program may be learning physical intervention strategies. However, the real gold is learning the prevention and early intervention strategies that can minimize the chances of a person reaching the level of physical aggression.

2. Add interactivity.
Nothing will make today’s learner reach for his or her smartphone faster than having to sit through a straight-up lecture. Building shorter information sessions around case studies and interactive activities keeps the learner engaged in the content and better able to apply training principles to their day-to-day realities on the job.

3. Use visuals. 
Adding graphical elements to the training material activates more parts of the learner’s brain, and helps them remember elements of the content. One statistic I read showed that a person’s brain processes pictures 60,000 times faster than words. The more active the learner’s brain, the more engaged they feel toward the content, and the less likely they are to start thinking about goldfish (or their grocery list, or the latest meme they saw on Buzzfeed).

4. Bring it.
The instructor has a heavy burden. The most meaningful, most interactive, and most visual instructor-led content still requires someone with passion and energy to deliver it. As Simon Sinek says, start with the “why.” What does the content mean to you? How can you help your learners apply what they're learning to make their jobs better, or to improve the lives of the people they serve? Your learners need to see and feel your passion for the material, which, more than anything else, will compel them to stay connected to you and what you teach.

These strategies should help you trump that 8-second attention span. What other methods do you use?

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