Short Attention Span Theater: Learning in Seconds

Short Attention Span Theater

Attention Span Research

There has been a tremendous amount of hoopla related to research conducted by Microsoft to measure the attention span of a group of more than 2,000 Canadians.  This research was first conducted in the year 2000 and the average attention span was twelve seconds.  When the research was conducted again in 2015, the average attention span had fallen to eight seconds.  Research shows that the attention span of the average gold fish is nine seconds.  How can this be?  What implications does it have for the modern learner?  What does it mean for today’s learning and development professional?

“The true scarce commodity of the near future will be human attention,” Satya Nadella, Microsoft CEO.

Too Much Information

The Microsoft researchers believe that as people use more screens to conduct their daily multi-tasking activities, our brains get more easily distracted when new information is presented.  According to a New York Times article, Microsoft’s CEO, Satya Nadella stated in the 54-page report, “The true scarce commodity of the near future will be human attention.”  Our shortened attention spans only get exacerbated by the daily explosion of new data.  According to a University of California study, data consumption in the US is 3.6 zettabytes a day, or 3.6 trillion gigabytes.  That’s a lot of data.  No wonder it’s hard to pay attention.  Ironically, hundreds of articles have been written on the topic of coping with the information explosion, including this recent piece in the Harvard Business Review, “The Ways Your Brain Manages Overload, and How to Improve Them.

If You Can’t Beat ‘em, Join ’em

Because of this deluge of data across multiple media, from mobile devices to computers, and smart TVs to satellite radio, and websites to streaming media sites, we all pay less attention.  As a learning professional, if you aren’t aware of this trend, you may “turn off” some of your constituents, who often revel in the use of “just-in-time” content.  Therefore, there is a growing call for and development of “Microlearning.”

Learn more about St. Charles Consulting Group’s Custom Program Design Services

What is Microlearning?

To state it simply, Microlearning is learning in short bursts, which learners can access at any time.  They typically use video and or other media to help maintain learner attention and, depending on the source, can be four to five minutes in length, or as short as 60 to 90 seconds.  Part of the reason Microlearning is exploding in popularity is it parallels the way many people (and especially Millennials) prefer to learn.  With the growing presence of Millennials in the workplace, there has been an outcry for Microlearning.  To help learning professionals learn about Microlearning, ATD has even launched a Microlearning Certificate program.

What Are Some of the Core Attributes of Microlearning?

  • Time – Learner interactions with content, activities, and information in minutes, rather than hours, days, weeks, or months.
  • Portability – Content can typically be accessed from anywhere often in multiple media types.
  • Stand Alone – Content has meaning by itself, as a self-contained module. At the same time, learners can still get value from bundles of Microlearning content.
  • Uses – Microlearning can be used as memory joggers, reinforcement, component parts of other learning programs, educational marketing pieces, teasers, etc.
  • Media – These learning nuggets can be short videos, audio files, super short eLearning modules, quizzes, electronic flash cards, checklists, etc.
  • Current – Microlearning aligns with the way most people seek information and answers, i.e., by searching and reading or viewing videos, etc.

In Summary

We are all overwhelmed by information.  We are continually bombarded with new streams of information, which our minds are trying to capture, process, filter, and internalize, all of which shortens our already short attention spans.  To better serve learners grappling with these realities, learning and development professionals should consider making more, and better use, of Microlearning assets.


The Microlearning Guide to Microlearning, (Torgeson, 2016)
Design for How People Learn, (Dirksen, 2015)
Written by Larry Durham, Partner, St. Charles Consulting Group

Outlook and Trends Impacting Learning & Development

On today’s episode, we look at Part 2 of the current business landscape for L&D, what are the trends that are driving change, and what are the implications on Learning within organizations.