E-learning: How to keep learners from getting distracted
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E-learning: How to keep learners from getting distracted

Imagine one of your employees has committed to watching an e-learning module this week. She blocks out the time on her calendar and tells her team she can’t be disturbed. But as soon as she hits play, an email from her manager arrives.

Now, instead of focusing on the content, her mind begins to drift. She returns her attention to the video, but then starts thinking about all of the things she needs to get done by the end of the week. Before she knows it, the video has finished and she barely absorbed a word of it.

With job responsibilities and constant online distractions, it can be a challenge for employees to give learning experiences their undivided attention. And who can blame them? If only there were a proven way to keep learners focused…

The research

Psychologists at Harvard University recently explored ways to keep online learners focused and on task. They found that the addition of one simple element can increase learners’ attention and improve retention of the material. And the strategy can be implemented easily into any workplace learning program.

In the study, researchers showed three groups of participants a 20-minute online lecture. First, the researchers divided the lecture into four 5-minute segments to make the content easier to digest. In between each 5-minute video, the groups were assigned three different activities.

The first group, the test group, was given a short quiz on what they just learned. The second group, the restudy group, was given time to restudy the new material. The third group, the non-test group, was given an unrelated task – to solve a few math problems.

After the groups were shown all four videos, they were given a cumulative test on all the material they had just learned. As you might expect, the test group performed significantly better on the final test – scoring over 20 percent higher than both the restudy and non-test groups. But that’s not all.

More than test scores

Increasing learners’ memory of new material would be an impressive enough finding for the study. But the researchers – who were primarily interested in learner attention – discovered that interspersed quizzes offer even more benefits.

Specifically, the study found that quizzes cut down the online learners’ mind wandering by half. The quizzes also tripled learners’ on-task behavior – in this case, taking notes on the lecture. The researchers argue that the knowledge of the impending quizzes raises the stakes for learners and focuses them on the material, guarding against distractions.

“It’s not sufficient for a lecture to be short,” said the head researcher. “You need to have the testing… What we really need to do is instill in students the expectation that they will need to express what they’ve learned at some later point… The testing is the critical component.”

Another interesting finding was that the “test group” reported feeling significantly less anxious on the final test and found it to be less mentally taxing. So regular assessments throughout the learning experience may also help learners perform new tasks more confidently down the road.


Here are some ways to apply these findings to your learning initiatives:

Keep learning experiences manageable.

The first step the researchers took was to cut the lecture down from 20 minutes to five-minute pieces. When learning content is short and focused, it leaves less opportunity for learners to lose interest or get distracted.

Assess early and often.

The interspersed quizzes were shown to have multiple benefits, from keeping learners focused on the material to increasing their confidence when using new skills. If your e-learning solution doesn’t offer assessments, have your learning professionals create their own for learners to take. And if you’re using classroom learning, ask instructors to regularly pause during instruction to ask learners questions and engage in activities that will test and measure learners’ understanding.

Show learners the results.

While assessments are valuable for the reasons outlined in the study, they’re also a valuable source of feedback for learners. The results of assessments can be both motivating and can also reveal the areas where learners need to improve, helping them focus their practice.


Szpunar, K. K., et al. (2013). Interpolated memory tests reduce mind wandering and improve learning of online lectures. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 110(16), 6313-6317.

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