The Attention Span Crisis
Updated: Dec 7, 2020
Is the idea of an attention span basically rubbish?
One of the few things that we can say is that attention span varies and it [is] impossible to offer a specific estimate for how long people can pay attention.
I've just done some research on the subject, because I had this sneaking suspicion that there is no such thing as an 'average' attention span, and that this crisis we're all having about the millennials not being able to focus for longer than 10 minutes is actually failing to see the real issue.
Would you believe, I still think I'm right.
For starters, no one seems able to agree on what the average attention span is. There are claims that it's 10-20 minutes sitting there next to assertions that it fluctuates from 30 seconds to 10 minutes and back again throughout the learning engagement. When trying to work out the attention spans of children, there are many different formulas - from 2-5 minutes per year old (so for a 6 year old expect between 12 and 30 minutes) to adding 1 to their chronological age (so for a 6 year old expect 7 minutes). Which is it?! Where are people getting these numbers from?
Now that's an interesting question - because in all the reading I did, there was very little actual research cited. And the research I did find was dubious at best, seemingly failing to take into account any other factors that could affect the results. (For example, Bunce/Flens/Neiles (2010) cited here, and Dukette/Cornish (2009) cited here. Some articles even went as far as making claims about attention spans and then saying that the source of their information was unknown. UNKNOWN.)
And so I have to come to the conclusion that there is no such thing as a measurable attention span - or if there is, we haven't measured it - and that we just arbitrarily grab these numbers that seem to make sense to us. I think that how long we can focus on something is determined by our energy levels on any given day, how distracting our immediate environment is, how motivated we are to learn about the topic, how it's presented to us, and so on.
Here's what we do know.
This article defines an attention span as how long we can keep our attention on tough or 'boring' tasks - another article talks about sustained attention as 'the ability to maintain focus on a task or assignment a [person] considers uninteresting or difficult'. So what they're saying is that people struggle to focus when they find something boring.
I would like to suggest something radical.
Instead of flipping out about the millennial attention-span crisis and burning all their phones -
Instead of patronising people ('oh all these poor learners who can't focus no matter how hard they try, bless them') -
Instead of coming up with all these tricks and spending so much energy on trying to get people to stay focused when they're bored -
How about we realise that we are teaching intelligent human beings who will eagerly learn, if what they're given to learn is interesting? How about we improve the quality of our learning so it's something that people want to engage with?
Why have we still not grasped this?
Consider your learners' motivation. Why are they coming to your content? If it's something that's required of them (compliance training for their job, for example), how can you make it interesting to them? Engelmann & Pessoa (2009) found that when someone was motivated, it improved their performance in a task requiring sustained attention (and they found brain imaging evidence to back this up). We know this. Tolkien fans can spend 10 solid hours in a Lord of the Rings movie marathon and stay focused for the entire time. Bookworms can lose a whole afternoon in a novel. A child can be immersed in playing the same game for hours on end. They stay focused on it because they are interested or invested in it.
We also need to ensure we're producing learning content that makes the topic accessible. If something is difficult, it's harder for us to focus on it - Lavie et al. (2004) did some studies on this, and discovered that how much you can remember (ie how long you can focus for) depends on the difficulty of the task. Again, we know this - and equally, we know that if something is too simple, it's boring and therefore hard to focus on. There's a careful balance to be struck, here, and the key to getting it right is knowing the audience you're pitching it to.
Let your aim be to create excellent quality learning materials. Use a variety of instructional approaches - not to keep the attention of learners who can't focus for more than 10 minutes, but to make the learning interesting. Make learning that's fun and easy to access. Don't just churn out bland, static, word-heavy content. Create something intriguing; something that you would be excited to interact with.
I bet if we started doing that, we'd notice a dramatic increase in the length of our learners' attention spans.