The attention span of modern adults is anywhere between five and seven minutes. What sense does it make to create multi-day training if within the first 90 to 120 minutes, you’ve lost your audience?
LIFELONG LEARNING HAPPENS IN AN INSTANT.
Generally, lifelong learning does not happen inside the classroom or by watching a computer-based training course. Recent research tells us that the attention span of adults, and people in general, is dramatically reducing. A 2008 study commissioned by Lloyds TSB Insurance found that the average adult attention span is now just five minutes seven seconds – down from twelve minutes a decade ago. Training or discussing something for too long actually lowers the amount of recall
“The human brain can only hold 7 pieces of information for less than 30 seconds” John Medina, author of Brain Rules.
And yet, training course after training course targeting adults spans days and sometimes even multiple weeks. What is the true benefit of all of this training?
Regardless of the type of training or the topic that is being discussed, the human brain works much more effectively when it is given the opportunity to learn small bites of information and then go away to synthesize it, reflect on it, potentially practice using it, and then go back and learn the next piece of information. The adult brain searches for the relevance and practicality of information that is delivered (a topic to be discussed at a later date). Once a piece of information is delivered, the immediate reaction is to try and place that piece of information into context; that context is different for each individual. Keeping it short enables adults to put the information in context, think on it, and be prepared to learn more at the next opportunity.
SO WHAT DOES THIS ALL MEAN?
Training in the web era must be sustained, brief, and very pointed. Based on research on the attention span of adults currently, it is vital that training be redesigned and repurposed to be extremely focused. It is no longer appropriate to have training that extends over multiple days or multiple weeks, unless there are frequent breaks and opportunities to step away from the training. Organizations are no longer capable of allowing employees to be away from their workspace or their duties for long stretches of time. Research will show that it is also not necessary to be away for long periods of time. For the most part, employees are not natural learners, therefore training must be high-impact but very brief, to allow them to go back and utilize what they have learned.
This is actually great news. What it means is that training that has been previously developed only needs to be modified. New training can now be developed with the idea of “keep it short” as one of the development frames. There are some key concepts to remember when altering current or developing new training that will leverage the power of keeping it short on the learner’s ability to recall and utilize the information delivered:
◦ Bursts of knowledge
◦ Broken up into 7 – 10 minute increments
◦ Limit topics to 50 minutes
◦ DO NOT have lengthy training
◦ Keep things fresh
◦ Limits the need for multitasking
This is by no means an indictment or call to throw out all of the training that’s ever been developed that is longer than five to seven minutes. That is similar to saying that all buildings that don’t have elevators should be destroyed. For the most part, people who develop training are not neurobiologists or experts on the brain, so it wouldn’t be logical for them to have this information. It does mean that training should be modified to leverage this new knowledge. It is similar thinking to why the blog has become so popular. Our attention spans and ability to take in large amounts of information about single topics have been reduced, both because we are busier and because there’s just so much more out there. Blogs allow us to learn new information in a very short amount of time, and utilize or share it to increase our ability to recall it when it’s necessary. Training is the same way. Keeping it short makes it more effective, keeps it more accessible over the long haul, and increases the likelihood that training will have a positive impact on the performance of the individual and organization over time.
How long should training be? Can we afford multi-day training anymore? Let us know what you think!
Anil Saxena is the President of Cube 2.14, an organizational development consulting firm that works with clients to increase both customer and employee engagement while decreasing turnover, improving customer retention, and increasing profitability within organizations.
Saxena is a certified High Impact coach and trainer and a Joint Application Design facilitator. He is also certified by both Rush Systems and IBM as a focus group facilitator. He is an inaugural member of Northwestern University’s Learning and Organizational Change program, and he earned his bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering from the Illinois Institute of Technology.