Researching Attention Spans

By Claire Schneeberger
There is plenty of media coverage these days about the erosion of attention spans among kids and adults alike. One famous Microsoft study showed human attention span has dropped from 12 seconds in 2000 to just 8 seconds in 2015—blaming the 25% drop on our “digital lifestyles.”

While I may sometimes feel evangelical about the antidotes to this problem, this article is not about the benefits of deep reading, mindfulness, or digital sunsets. As a learning designer, I know I can’t change the environments of all my learners or the demands on their attention. Instead my job is to provide useful, relevant content to them in a way that they can understand and apply.

Which brings me to today’s topic… how much time can I expect my students to stick with an online tutorial or video? There are a couple of recent research studies that give some insight into the answer.

The first study comes from researchers at the Open University of Israel, who evaluated data of students enrolled in online courses. The researchers looked at attention span of students watching a traditional video lecture vs. those engaging with video AND some kind of interactivity. Did interactivity increase the attention span of learners, or was it an interruption and distraction? The study found that adding interactivity did increase the percentage of learners who completed the video lecture, up to a point. But they found that when the lecture is longer than 15 minutes, “the completion percentages decreased, even after adding interactive elements.”

In the second study, researchers at DeSales and Clemson Universities studied the use of video in a “flipped classroom” application. In the experiment, students were shown the first six minutes of a video and given a handout on the topic prior to working on a lab in class. The comparison group received the handout, but no video introduction. In three of the four lab experiences, students who watched the videos first “performed significantly better” in pre- and post-lab tests. In those cases, they found a twofold increase in test scores assessing scientific concepts and techniques. Not bad results for a 6-minute intervention. (The exception was a lab that the study suggested had “little room for growth,” since most students understood the content.)

While every learning context is unique, this data does help quantify what you may have already suspected—that you have to make every second count when presenting online learning or training content. Use interactivity when you can, and break up learning into short sessions that are no longer than 15 minutes each.

References

“A Learning Analytics Approach for Evaluating the Impact of Interactivity in Online Video Lectures on the Attention Span of Students.” Informing Science Institute, 2017, informingscience.org/Publications/3875.

Schaffhauser, Dian. “Flipping with Short Lab Videos May Help Students Learn in Science Courses.” Campus Technology, 31 Jan. 2018, campustechnology.com/articles/2018/01/31/flipping-with-short-lab-videos-may-help-students-learn-in-science-courses.aspx.