28 March 2021
Learner Attention Span: How Smaller Pieces Content Improves Retention

As the COVID-19 virus escalated into a global pandemic from the beginning of last year, the education sectors all over the world had to make the difficult decision to shut their doors—forcing a sudden and almost universal shift to online learning, which was disruptive for teachers, students, and parents. The closure of schools and universities have greatly affected the education of around 1.3-1.5 billion students across the globe.The growing omnipresence of the internet and social dependency on digital devices ultimately meant that we are able to receive information quickly and constantly. We are bombarded with distractions every day from the notifications on our phone or a ping on our desktops. In result, we have become accustomed to expecting information swiftly and constantly. Though evidence varies, some estimates suggest that we can only keep our attention on tasks for an average 20 minutes, our attention span has also been argued to be as short as 8 seconds. Researchers have proposed a theory that states because of exposure to the frantic world we live in with its persistent challenges and competition, our brand rewires itself to better accommodate this rapid pace. We no longer focus on a single matter for a long period of time because we no longer need the extra time.

In an ideal world, learners would be prepared to with a mindset of absorbing hours of information without pause. Though potential distractions is a factor, a lack of discipline or motivation is not to blame for the short attention span. It all comes down to a scientific explanation behind it.

While learners are able to re-focus their attention on the same subject repeatedly, it is normal for lapses in attention to occur. There has been a study to demonstrate what educators have known for years, and that is even the best of learners will have a limited attention span. In a world where technology continuously grows its potential, more learners now are gravitating towards a more hands-on, tech-connected learning experience. For this reason, it is imperative that educators strike the right balance between impactful content and a concise approach. Digital microlearning is an ideal way to strike this balance.

What is Microlearning?

Microlearning is a concise, concentrated learning designed to meet a particular learning outcome. The important part of it is that lessons deliver a burst of content to learners.

Most microlearning modules present learning objectives in an average of 10-minute portions. Microlearning can take various forms of any number of the following types of content:

  • Video: Ideally around 15-30 minutes. These bite-sized videos usually cover a specific objective in a concise way that aims to minimize cognitive overload.
  • Audio: Ideally presented in small portions with the aim of enabling learners to digest with ease.
  • Text: Can be used to complement video or audio-based content. The intention should not be to overwhelm learners with excessive written content.
  • Images: Incorporate charts, diagrams, and illustrations for a more engaging learning experience.
  • Quizzes: Element of interactivity. Each bite-sized lesson can have a quiz as a way to test knowledge in the moment, rather than solely at the end of a longer course or subject.
  • Gamification: For further interactivity, this element can increase learner engagement by enabling a more enjoyable and rewarding learning experience.

There is no right or wrong length to a learning course, therefore consider the needs of your learners when designing the course. Whilst microlearning places limitations on the amount of information you’re able to present learners within one sitting, it does create a number of advantages. First, smaller sessions allow learners to easily approach the material as the lessons are often more focused, eliminating any clutter that might hinder the learning process. The other major benefit of learning in shorter sessions is that microlearning followed by element break in between is an ideal match for the working memory capacity of humans as a whole. Our human brain is designed to retain focus and learn over shorter periods rather than long ones. We are taught from childhood the importance of repeating information and with micro lessons, it will be easier to repeat materials that have been learned.

For an educator who has never previously designed a microlearning lesson, it may be difficult to know how to begin creating these smaller approaches to learning. The first thing to reassure is understanding that micro lessons are presented as part of the larger lesson. Educators will need to start by providing a broad overview of the learning goals for learners and organize the context for what the student will be learning during their smaller lessons. One way in which educators have done to enhance their micro lessons is through video. The format medium is the best solution to raise the level of engagement for any learner. Video lessons at the current digital age tend to last up to 30 minutes, compared to the 1-hour typical lessons in conventional learning. Subsequently, this not only promotes concentration but also allows students to research their own interests on the subject. Through on-demand, engaging and rich media, your learners will be engaged right from the beginning until the end of the module.

In conclusion, the combination of the growing interest in e-learning speaks volumes about its inevitable continuous growth. More educators and institutions step up their contribution towards the future global online education industry. Added by circumstances of the COVID-19 pandemic, the necessity for connections and learning has become inescapable. We are adapting with these changing times and working towards the best learning experience for our learners of tomorrow.


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  3. Course Duration and Its Impact on Learner Attention Span, Gutenberg Technology
  4. Numbers Don’t Lie: Why Microlearning is Better for Your Learners (and You too), Shift Learning
  5. Smaller Sometimes Means Better: 13 Benefits of Microlearning, Learning Hub
  6. Microlearning: A Complete Guide, Education Corner