To keep learners focused, mix it up

by on September 30, 2015 · 0 Comment POSTED IN: Rapid Learning Insights
Continuing education students with instructor, asking questions in classroom.  Focus on woman sitting.

The first challenge for any successful training experience is to grab learners’ attention. The bigger challenge, however, can be keeping it.

Your learners are busy, their attention spans are short, and not every training topic is going have them on the edge of their seat. So what can you do to keep their focus?

A recent study shows that constantly mixing things up – for example, by changing your instructional technique or switching topics – can keep learners focused and on their toes.

The research

The study, out of the University of Illinois, asked participants to take a computerized test. One group was given the same type of test for 50 minutes. The second group was given slightly different tests over the same amount of time.

Researchers found that the group that switched tasks performed dramatically better. Their performance stayed relatively the same over the course of the 50 minutes, while the group that performed the same type of task saw their performance progressively decline.

It’s not what you think

The limits of our attention are well documented. But the researchers say that our attention spans and limited short-term memory aren’t the main culprits here. It’s repetition.

The study argues that when we engage in the same task for too long, our brain stops thinking it’s important – and stops focusing on it. Think of it like white noise. When your office’s air conditioner first kicks on, you notice. But a few minutes later, you don’t even hear it anymore.

The research suggests that same thing happens to learners who are watching a 50-minute e-learning course or passively absorbing an instructor’s lecture. After a while, no matter how important it is, they stop hearing it.

The researchers concluded that, “Constant stimulation is registered by our brains as unimportant, to the point that the brain erases it from our awareness… [but] deactivating and reactivating your goals allows you to stay focused.”

Learn more about the science behind the Rapid Learning Institute. Check out these 2-minute videos.


To keep learners from tuning out your important content, don’t do the same thing for too long. Here are some recommendations for how to keep your learners focused, based on the research:

Switch up your instructional style. There will, of course, be times when learners need to passively absorb new material. But to keep their attention, add in other exercises that keep them on their toes.

For example, after presenting the introduction to your topic, ask your learners to discuss what they already know about the topic with a peer. Then resume your presentation. After a few more minutes, ask some probing questions to get learners thinking and keep them engaged. The more varied the training experience, the less likely they will tune it out.

Change topics. After discussing a new topic, review an old one. Then another one. If learners don’t know what’s coming next, you’ll hold their attention. Another benefit: Research shows that switching back and forth through learning topics, or interleaving, is an incredibly effective way to practice and improve memory.

Take breaks. If you’re conducting a training session longer than 15 minutes, consider building in some breaks so learners can step away and come back ready to reengage. Many learning professionals already do this, but the research reinforces that something as simple as a 5-minute break can dramatically improve your training’s effectiveness.

Ariga, A., and Lleras, A. (2011). Brief and rare mental “breaks” keep you focused: Deactivation and reactivation of task goals preempt vigilance decrements. Cognition, 118(3), 439-443.

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