Design elearning to retain learner’s attention

Posted by Greten on 20 Aug 2019 under Theories, Tips

In a learning process, it is very important that your learners give attention to what they are learning, be it to you as their instructor in a classroom setting, to a collaborative activity they are working with their peers, or to the learning module that you developed so they can learn where and when they want.

According to the AGES model of effective learning, the knowledge that the learners learned with focused attention is likely to stay in long term memory. When a person pays attention to something, a part of the brain called hippocampus activates; this organ is responsible for creating long-term memories.

Types of attention

Before you can use attention in elearning, let us first discuss attention in a more general sense. There are two kinds of attention.

  • Reflexive attention: a sudden change in the surrounding caused people to pay attention to that change. For example, you are relaxing in your house's veranda one calm night when you suddenly heard a clap of thunder and saw a flash of lightning.
  • Voluntary attention: focused and deliberate attention to an object or event. For example, watching TV or hearing a motivational speaker speaks while looking at the TV or at the speaker respectively.

Elearning modules and educational videos can utilize reflexive attention by inserting subtle catchy elements such as text effects for emphasis or change in the tone of voice of the narrator. The keyword is "subtle"; do not overdo the attention grab or else it will become a distraction instead of an aid in learning.

Encourage learners to focus their attention on learning

An obvious way to get the learners' attention is to ask for their focused and undivided attention at the beginning of the learning process.

However, telling them to focus on the lesson is not sufficient even if they are willing to follow. You could also tell the learners what they can do so they can concentrate better. Ask the learners to:

  • Turn off their cellphones or put them in silent mode, and close applications and browser windows except those that they will use in the learning process. If they are accessing the elearning in their office computer, set their status in the messenger to "Busy" or "Do not disturb".
  • If the learning is taking place at home, ask them to select a room or a part of the house where there are the fewest possible distractions to learning. Also, advise them to inform their family members not to disturb them unless it's an emergency.
  • Answer calls and messages that are really emergencies and they are expecting, for example, about a family member confined in a hospital. For messages that are important but can be postponed, suggest that they take a quick note of it so they can return to it later after the learning session.
  • Suggest that they look for the best place in their house, school, or work, that they are allowed to use, where you can learn best, such as by the window where they can see the plants and trees that can calm them. They can also choose a quiet spot in the mall or coffee shop where they can sit and set up their mobile phones or tablet computers.

Stimulate reflexive attention during the learning

Reflexive attention is aroused when there is a sudden change in the environment, such as thunder and lightning in an otherwise calm night sky. It is a human instinct to focus their attention to sudden changes, evolved as a means of survival. Better pay attention to potential danger, verify it, and act accordingly for your safety. Since it is already wired in the human brain, you can use it in your elearning development and instructional design to keep hold of the learners' attention. Here are some ways of stimulating learners' reflexive attention.

  • Shift the tone of the audio narration when emphasizing an important concept or fact within the lesson.
  • Draw attention to something in a diagram or figure as various parts are described: use highlight box, enlarge some nodes in a diagram, animate some parts, among others.
  • Add humor in the discussion whenever it makes sense. It could awaken those who are getting sleepy.

However, the methods you use to arouse reflexive attention should be rare. Otherwise, they become the "normal" and thus, will no longer be able to catch attention. For example, do not use animation to catch the attention if most of the images are already animated.

Eliminate distractions within the learning module

Sometimes, the distraction is not in the surrounding or other people, but in the learning module that you developed.

Parts of the learning module should not draw more attention than necessary

Learning, just like any task, can have several parts, and one particular part sometimes catches the attention of the learner to the detriment of the other parts. Sometimes, two or more parts are effective alone but become distractions to one another when they are together.

For example, using a simple flat illustration can be better than using a detailed realistic graphics or a real photograph in a K12 science class. Let's take the two figures of the human brain below.

A simple illustration of the human brain with different parts in colors brown, yellow, salmon, and light pink (left) and a realistic 3D image of the brain in gray (right).

The drawing on the left does not show how the brain really looks like; brain tissues do not have those colors. However, it allows the learners to see the different parts, and thus discussing their functions will be easier.

In the more realistic illustration of the brain on the right, the tissues look like a continuous blob with no clear boundary between the parts. If you put the labels for the parts on the right figure, the students have to struggle to find the parts, distracting them from what they should be learning at the moment. Also, a realistic image of internal organs might arouse queasy feelings to some learners, which is not conducive to learning.

Have some of your colleagues or neutral third parties run your learning module before deploying it to intended learners. If they mention that specific parts of the learning module such as illustration, animation, or audio draw attention such that they become distractions, rectify those parts.

Do not put the learners through learning activities where they have to multitask

Multitasking is the adversary of focused and undivided attention. This is the reason we need to advise them to put their phones to silent mode and close other windows when working on their elearning. If the learning module itself requires them to multitask, the result is an inefficient learning process.

Reading and listening at the same time is a form of multitasking. Since most of the elearning modules currently being developed include both visual and audio narration, ensure that the two are so seamlessly integrated. For example, the narration is explaining something and you would like to emphasize a key phrase or a key concept by popping-up a specialized textbox, ensure that it appears at the same moment as its equivalent in the narration starts.

Also, the content of the text box must be the same as that of the narration. Do not paraphrase, rearrange words, or use synonyms. The learners should read exactly the same text as they are hearing.

Consider the following narration about asbestos; supposed you want to emphasize its health hazards to the learners:

Audio/narration: Asbestos is an insulating material that has been used in construction for thousands of years. It is widely used due to  its excellent tensile strength and resistance to fire. However, asbestos can cause lung diseases such as pleural plaques, asbestosis, and mesothelioma. It is currently banned in 55 countries.

Textbox A: Asbestos can cause lung diseases such as pleural plaques, asbestosis, and mesothelioma.

Textbox B: Asbestos can result to lung afflictions such as pleural plaques, asbestosis, and mesothelioma.

Textbox C: Pleural plaques, asbestosis, and mesothelioma are some of the diseases caused by asbestos.

Textbox A is the best textbox since it is exactly the same as what the learners can hear, and thus the learners are not multitasking. Compare to textbox B, which substitute some of the words (cause/result and diseases/afflictions), and textbox C, which rearrange the words. The mental effort in processing the audio together with the textbox A is much less compare to textboxes B and C.

Establish certainty about the length of the learning process and breaks

At the beginning of the learning module, inform the learners of how long the learning process will take place, and when the breaks will happen. The anticipation of break triggers positive emotion, which in turn activates the hippocampus and releases dopamine, making the learners focused and attentive while easing the transmission of knowledge to the long term memory.

Another way of making the student anticipate the breaks or the end of the learning module is to put a progress indicator. The progress indicator can be as simple as displaying the current slide number over the total number of slides or the outline of the learning module that highlights the current topic.

Never develop a continuous learning module that plays for more than 20 minutes. Researches in neuroscience show that human attention lasts for the maximum of 20 minutes, and after which it dwindles significantly. Establish suitable breaks before the twenty-minute mark or earlier, such as a one-question exercise with no time limit.

Final Note

Learners learn best when they provide undivided attention to the learning process. Drawing their attention is also part of the instructional design. Encourage them to set up their environment so the distractions to learning are minimal, and include elements that can draw attention to your elearning module.

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Last updated on 20 Aug 2019.

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Instructional design and educational technology for effective learning