A very sobering fact is that in six short years, millennials will make up around 50% of the global working population. And with our ever-increasing culture of information overload that we have all been subjected to since the mobile revolution began, you may have overlooked news about shrinking attention spans. While millennials seem to be the subject of much of the reporting on Digital-Age attention spans, the effect can be seen across all age ranges. How can you train anyone in this environment? Read on to find out.
Diminishing Attention Spans
A 2015 Microsoft study of 2,000 Canadian participants was conducted using electroencephalograms (EEGs) to measure brain activity and the average consumption of media information. The research concluded that the average attention span had fallen from 12 seconds in 2000 to eight seconds today, which now means we have a shorter attention span than the average goldfish at nine seconds.
In the study, attention span was defined as “the amount of concentrated time on a task without becoming distracted.” I tried to read the entire 54-page report, but I lost interest. What I do remember is a quote from Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella that was very telling. Nadella said, “The true scarce commodity” of the near future will be “human attention.”
The good news from the report is that our ability to multitask has dramatically improved in the mobile age. But the bad news is that people with heavy screen time find it more difficult to filter out irrelevant stimuli and are more easily distracted by multiple streams of media.
Combining the already difficult job of training people for our industry with an eight-second attention span results in a seemingly impossible task. Today’s workers are faced with unlimited distractions around them at all times from entertainment to social media. The bottom line is that many people find it difficult to grasp and retain information delivered in lengthy or continuous formats.
What Can You Do?
You can leverage technology, which is easy to say but harder to do. Today, some people would rather text the person in the next cubicle than walk over and talk face-to-face. Others want to make all of their purchases online, and get their entertainment and social engagement through their phones, tablets, or computers. There is a lesson to be learned from studying this behavior that can be applied to training; make it visual, provide it electronically, and break it into short increments.
Throughout my undergraduate and MBA studies, I discovered that I am both a visual and experiential learner. I gain and retain knowledge far better by seeing and experiencing rather than merely reading long, boring texts. Of course, I read the books, but my comprehension and retention were a step function greater when using visual tools like mind mapping to condense the critical aspects of a chapter into a one-page picture.
And visual learning is not just for millennials; here are a few facts  that may change the way you learn or teach:
- Of all the information transmitted to the brain, 90% is visual
- As opposed to text, visuals are processed 60,000 times faster
- Humans are capable of getting the sense of a visual scene in less than one-tenth of a second
- 40% of nerve fibers are linked to the retina
- Our brain can see images that last for only 13 milliseconds
- The human eye can register 36,000 visual messages every hour
What is e-Learning? Electronic learning is the delivery of learning and training through digital resources. Although e-Learning is based on formalized learning, it is provided through electronic devices, such as computers, tablets, and cellphones connected to the internet.
E-Learning began strictly as an educational tool primarily in universities that later filtered down through the entire educational system. In a traditional e-Learning environment, people typically learn the training content in a secluded, self-paced environment. But many millennials prefer being in groups of other like-minded people. Collaborative learning provides an opportunity for them to interact with fellow learners and share learning experiences. This also encourages active learning where each learner can actively participate in learning activities.
Microlearning can be simply understood as providing e-Learning and training material in small doses. I have long been a fan of breaking up complex projects, like ISO implementation, into small, manageable “buckets” to avoid people being overwhelmed. These training materials could be anything that can be comprehended in a short time, such as infographics, flipbooks, interactive videos and PDFs, whiteboard animations, etc. This is in contrast with traditional content and heavy training courses, which get monotonous with time.
Some collateral benefits from microlearning include that:
- You can quickly close a small knowledge or skill gap
- It’s budget-friendly and has a laser-focused scope
- Learners can gain quick achievements from a short learning session
- It’s less disruptive for your company
Accept and Adapt
As difficult as it is to swallow our ever-decreasing eight-second attention span, our job is to accept the constraint and develop solutions that allow us to continue to provide high-quality training to new employees in this millennial age.
1. Jandhyala, D. "Visual Learning: Six Reasons Why Visuals Are the Most Powerful Aspect of e-Learning," eLearningIndustry.com, December 8, 2017.
Steve Williams is the president of The Right Approach Consulting.
This article was originally published in the May 2019 issue of PCB007 Magazine.