Overcoming Goldfish Myths & the Challenges to Attention Spans

Let’s put this goldfish myth to bed once and for all. You’ve heard this one: our attention span is only eight seconds, less than the attention span of a goldfish.

What we have here is a case of lazy journalism. This statistic is usually attributed to a Microsoft Canada survey report, but their research doesn’t mention eight seconds or goldfish. A real BBC journalist, Simon Maybin, dug deeper. The Microsoft report attributes the stat to the Statistic Brain website. Maybin described the sources for the website’s published findings as “infuriatingly vague.” He followed up with each one and found no research to back up the claim. Now, there’s no trace of the goldfish stat on their site.
For what it’s worth, this stat is an insult to goldfish too. Fish experts told Maybin that goldfish have “become a model system for studying the process of learning and the process of memory formation, exactly because they have a memory and because they learn.” There’s no evidence of a short attention span. One ichthyologist told him, “That a species that's used by neuro-psychologists and scientists as a model for studying memory formation should be the very species that has this reputation—I think that's an interesting irony."

goldfish species know for their attention spans

How the attention span works

Maybin learned from psychologists that the idea of an "average attention span" is pretty meaningless. Attention span is task dependent. The level of attention someone pays to a task depends on what the task demands and what the person expects of the task.

Attention spans are good article fodder because our brains can only produce one or two thoughts in our conscious mind at once, but the world we live in has other ideas. You’ve probably seen a slew of books and articles in recent years about the attention economy, attention merchants, attention theft, and weapons of mass distraction. Earl Miller, a neuroscientist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, says we now live in “a perfect storm of cognitive degradation.”

Yet, if our skills and knowledge are to keep pace with the accelerated change all around us, we need a healthy attention span so we can take in, digest, and retain new information. If your learners can’t do this, they’ll have a frustrating and ineffective educational experience.

Challenges to attention spans

Now, there are medical reasons for short attention spans like attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), learning disorders, or mental health issues like anxiety or depression, but that’s not what we’re talking about here.

The everyday distraction experienced by your learners and attendees that gets in the way of focused attention is more likely caused by these factors:

•    A sense of unease about issues on their mind, like Ukraine, politics, or the economy
•    Stress about their workload, personal responsibilities, to-do list, or how else they could use their time
•    Exhaustion
•    The craving for dopamine hits from checking emails, social media, or texts

In our instant gratification society, there’s an increasing impatience with anything that requires too much time or thought. Yes, it’s come to this.

But sometimes, a learner is prepared to focus, however, the class or session is too easy, so they tune out, or it’s way over their head. Even worse, the class is boring. The learner must passively listen to a monologue without no breaks for discussion or interactive exercises. That’s when the attention wanders.

woman focused on screen - attention spans

How to overcome barriers to focused attention

But all is not lost because we have freewill. We can choose when and how to pay attention, although the world around us doesn’t make it easy. The main thing to remember about attention spans is to think of “attention as an outgrowth of interest and, crucially, of choice.” The learner surely has responsibility, but you do too.

Address the issue up front

The longer the learner’s commitment, the more time you should spend discussing barriers to attention. Getting distracted and losing focus is natural. We’re human, we can’t help it. But you can mitigate the risk by raising awareness about the issue and offering resources for succeeding as an online learner.

But most of the responsibility falls on you. Your programs have to be the best use of someone’s time.

Eliminate boredom

When content is too easy, boredom sets in and attention strays. Allow learners to test out of units covering information or competencies they’ve already mastered. Although it’s unnecessary, some instructors and SMEs love to go way too deep on a topic. Remove all extraneous content. Stick to the point.

Keep learners engaged with interactive, interesting material. Reject boring presentations—no monologues. Mix up the instruction with more than one speaker. Break up units with group work or individual exercises. Use a mix of formats. Include unexpected elements, like surprise guest appearances by VIP-types.

Deliver bite-sized learning

Break up learning into smaller chunks—microlearning. It’s easier to focus when you know a break is coming. An 8-minute video is ok, a 45-minute video is torture. This principle applies to conferences too. Attendees need brain breaks and time to attend to distracting tasks and issues like what’s going on back at the office.

Offer context

Make the material relevant by putting it in context for them. Offer examples they can relate to. Include simulated real-life experiences where they can apply what they’re learning, like scenarios, case studies, and role playing.

Apply gaming principles

Look to gaming principles for inspiration. Many games are based on the hero’s journey: the hero encounters and overcomes challenges as they make their way toward the prize. Use scenarios, case studies, and exercises to put learners into a story where they must assess the situation, make decisions, and emerge victorious and better able to apply their new competencies in the workplace.

Help learners see and feel a sense of progress and mastery. Add polling or questions at key points in interactive videos to see how well they’re comprehending information and encourage them to keep paying attention. Provide feedback and progress reports on their journey toward mastery. These dopamine hits give them the same feel-good emotions that games do.  

Provide choice and control

A benefit of asynchronous online learning is the learner having control of when and where they learn, and the pace at which they learn. They can choose conditions conducive to focused learning.

Your association can design and deliver educational programs that hold a learner’s attention and interest. With all the resources out there—and on this blog—about learning science and instructional design, you can design programs that lead to positive reviews and word-of-mouth marketing, not boredom and distraction.

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