Sunday, March 8, 2009

Attention Spans & Learning

Thirty-five years ago, I wrote my first course on computer systems design at Arthur Andersen & Co. I learned then things about adult learning that are just being applied in colleges today - and they're considered very novel! The punchline: Adult attention spans are short - under 8 minutes long - and shortening, so for learning to be effective, learning activities need to be changed at least every 8 minutes (and maybe even shorter).

Here's my story. Our in-house courses at AA&Co. were conducted at our firm's school in St. Charles, Illinois. They ran from 1 day to 4 weeks in length. In our consulting division - which later became Accenture - our line professionals wrote our own course materials and taught the courses. I learned COBOL programming in 4 weeks of 5 1/2 day/week classes that ran from 8:30 am until 10:30 pm (with coffee, lunch, and dinner breaks). Okay, we were smart and motivated - and we were being paid to learn. But how could our firm ensure we'd learn well?

Two years later, when I was sent to write my first course, I was told that researchers had determined that the adult attention span was 10-15 minutes. If the same learning activity continued longer than that, students' minds went to sleep. So in writing the course, we had to change the activity - live presentation, video, problem solving, reading, discussion, etc. - every 10-15 minutes.

Starting over a decade ago, as Chancellor of the Ohio Board of Regents, I visited Ohio campuses and took special interest in learning about new uses of technology in classrooms. While many professors used various technology tools in their classes, not one knew of the attention span principle that had been drilled into me when I began my professional career.

Years later, in a meeting of university faculty senate presidents, I related my story about the 10-15 minute attention span and asked why professors continued to give 50 minute lectures. I was immediately challenged by a cognitive psychologist in the group. He said he had done research in this area and that I was wrong. I started covering myself, noting that my story was from a finding from 25 years before. The professor interrupted: "My research indicates the adult attentions span isn't 10-15 minutes, it's 6-8 minutes. And we don't give 50 minute lectures; many of us - including me - give 75 minute lectures."

Given the continuing explosion of information, increasing demands on our time, and new, ever-briefer techniques to grab our attention - consider 6 word newsfeed headlines, 140 character twitters, terse instant messenging notes - those 6-8 minutes have probably shrunk even more.

My conclusion: If we hope to increase the efficiency of learning, educators will have to start paying attention to research-based principles like the "change the activity" rule I learned so long ago. Advocates of new teaching techniques - like the 1-minute lecture (reported on 2 days ago in a Chronicle of Higher Education piece) - appear to have come to the same conclusion, though perhaps without the cognitive research foundation. If learning for some students in some topics can be made more efficient by applying 35-year old research, imagine how much more efficient it may become if we apply the research done since then!


  1. Six month ago, I attended an adult class at Pace University NY to learn Networking. It was a course of 3 hours a night, two nights a week and seven weeks in total. I paid about $2,000 for the course. After I completed the course I told my teacher that I had absorbed only 20% of what she taught in the class. However, during the course I met another teacher who was willing to give me a tutoring for $50/hr. I took the offer, started a private lesson at home and found that this method of learning was far more effective than the one I had at Pace.

  2. Of course, personalized instruction should be more effective, given comparably talented instructors.

    Did your Pace instructor vary the activity every several minutes, or was it 15 minutes or more blocks of lecture or other activities?

  3. My attention span is much less than normal... in fact, I could barely finish reading this blog - I just scanned through the middle parts...

  4. The lectures at Pace would continue for 90 minutes for the first half. After a 15-minute break, the second half of the lecture would take about 75 minutes.

    I am taking private lessons in Florida too. I am able to maintain concentration for about 45 minutes to one hour. After one hour my learning efficiency drops very rapidly.

  5. What is that picture all about?

  6. Poor K.S.! Having to sit through 3 hours of lecture at Pace with a 15 minute break! No wonder he didn't learn much! Thank you for validating my psychologists' research!

    A personal tutor, of course, should be more aware of a student's getting bored with the same activity and, at least instinctively, change the activity. That would maintain the student's attention and learning.

  7. The photo is of the Andersen training facility in St. Charles, IL.

  8. The 90 minutes lecture may have included multimedia presentations, Q&A, and exercises, plus jokes. Every 2 or 3 years, I attend a Defensive Driving course of 3 hours each night for 2 nights. The last instructor asked a lot of questions, I had to keep awake because he raised his voices every 5 minutes or so. And he loved to ask questions to those with their eyes closed. He told us some interesting cases every now and then. The Phelps Hospital’s theatre was nice facility to hold that course. Some students felt that his “know it all” type of attitude was quite rude, and I agree. However, at the end of 2 nights, I drove home feeling that I was a better driver.

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  10. During a private lesson, we always change subjects and make small talks about anything in life. I found it very useful and relaxing. Moreover, my tutor in Florida is a very nice looking lady named Evelyn. See her web site:

  11. 90 Minutes is a bit long. That lecturer should realise that students will take breaks right where they sit if he doesn't give them one when they need it.

    The attention span issue is relevant, but there are techniques to get around this. As Frances Chu said about the defensive driving course, varying pace, pitch and volume will extend this. Additionally visual stimuli and student interaction will improve the span.

    Dr John Medina has a presentation on slideshare to illustrate this point. it's 131 slides, but it doesn't feel like it.

    View it via