Attention Spans and the Modern Learner

by on April 30, 2014 · 0 Comment POSTED IN: Rapid Learning Insights
running a meeting

I recently wrote an article for the publication Technology Enabled Learning Excellence Essentials on the future of workplace learning. In the article, I discussed modern learners and technology’s impact on training and development practices. I want to expand upon a key point for readers of this blog as well.

Much has been made recently about modern learners and their attention spans. Based on a recent study, an adult’s attention span begins to fade after only 10 minutes. You might assume the limits of our attention are due to technology and the demands of a multitasking workplace, and that certainly hasn’t helped matters. But you can’t just blame YouTube. Short attention spans predate the Internet.

For example, let’s look at a study of doctoral students back in 1978, published in the esteemed medical journal The Lancet. The study examined students’ attention spans and concluded that students’ attention began to fade after 10 minutes. The researchers even went so far as to suggest that college lectures be cut down to 30 minutes instead of the traditional hour (or longer).

All of which suggests that short-form learning is more than a passing fad. It reflects something fundamental about how we process information.

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What does this all mean for training? Below are a couple of thoughts:

  1. Bite the bullet and create bite-size training experiences. It’s not easy. It requires a new mindset. Much of your existing content library isn’t suited for it. It’s easier to keep doing what you’re doing. The only problem is, it doesn’t work and never did.
  2. If you must use long-form training, at least revise it to present key information at the beginning (and end) of a training session. Research shows that learners’ attention dips after 10 minutes but rebounds towards the end of a learning experience. Trainees tend to remember the beginning and end of the training session best – psychologists call this the “primacy” and “recency” effects.

To learn more about training modern learners, read my cover story in Technology Enabled Learning Excellence Essentials. The issue has some interesting articles by other e-learning professionals, including a thoughtful piece on m-learning by Amy Osterhagen.

You can download the issue for free here:


Sousa, D.A. (2011). How the brain learns (4th ed.). Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin.
Stuart, J. and Rutherford, R. J. D. (1978). Medical student concentration during lectures. The Lancet, 312(8088), 514-516.

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