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Overcoming Decreased Attention Spans With Microlearning Videos

Humans are impatient – shocking, I know. I’ve observed this of myself and others around me over the years. I’ve also noticed that students today don’t have as much patience for long-form training classes as previous generations. Have you ever attended a class that you were interested in, only to find out it lasts  eight hours each day for a week or even two? Oh, and it’s being taught virtually.

As adults, our attention spans have been decreasing steadily. According to an article from the Alliance for Academic Internal Medicine, doctors Avraham Z. Cooper, MD and Jeremy B. Richards, MD, MA stated, “adult learning data suggest that typical learner attention span wanes after about 15 to 20 minutes.” Even as I write this article, I’ve been distracted by text messages, a phone call, children and my dog snoring.

According to Jessica Mautref’s Course Duration and Its Impact on Learner Attention Span, “A wavering attention span is associated less with attitude and more with course duration. Long courses routinely deliver poorer learning outcomes than shorter courses.”

Common Distractors in Learning

The longer a course goes, the more opportunities there are for distractions, which are a core attention destroyer. Here are some examples of distractions that may be common with longer courses:

  • Lack of Interest – Attention can drop significantly if employees are assigned to attend a course they have little or no interest in, or the subject has nothing to do with their current work responsibilities. Doctors Cooper and Richards explain, “For adult learners to engage with encountered material, they must feel that the material is applicable and relevant to their immediate situation.”
  • Cell Phones – My wife taught an instructor-led class of younger employees a few years ago and found them repeatedly on their phones. She asked them why they weren’t paying attention and their response was simply, “We’ll figure it out when we start doing the work.”
  • Poor Instructors – Just because you may be an expert at something doesn’t mean you are automatically a good teacher or instructor. Attentions will drop quickly if students are turned off by an instructor that talks over their heads, is poorly prepared or monotonous.
  • Text Heavy PowerPoints – One of my pet peeves is seeing bullet-points in a PowerPoint. It is one of the fastest ways to lose your student’s attention. Often, quality instructional design is largely missing from most training presentations that I’ve seen. For example, you should never have the exact same text on a slide that’s being said by the instructor or narrator. This causes a disconnect in the brain, as your brain will often read the text far quicker than the person saying it. It then is distracted by the person still speaking.
  • Too Much Content – As I’ve mentioned in a previous article, I compare this to “drinking from the firehose” type of training. Students can feel lost if overloaded with content or complexity and will quickly lose interest. They often hope to figure it out when they get back to their desk by asking for help from those around them.
  • Too Much Fluff – I was in a training class once where we lost a day of training due to the passing of former President Reagan. I remember the instructor saying, “We’ll need to cut out a lot of the fluff and keep just to the meat of the training materials.” I must admit it was one of the better courses I ever took. We shouldn’t be filling our courses with extraneous information or games that have nothing to do with the content, just to fill a certain amount of time for the training class. Instead, we should teach the content and end it when it is completed.

Microlearning Videos as a Solution

Microlearning videos solves these attention destroyers by:

  • One Topic/Action Per Video – By keeping the content to one topic or action, it automatically keeps our videos short and to the point. Typically, three minutes or less per video is our goal.
  • High-Quality Audio – Nothing will ruin a video faster than bad audio or narration. We strive to use high-quality microphones as well as audio editing equipment, which I discussed in my second GovLoop video. This helps people not be distracted from the content of the videos.
  • Instructional Design (ISD) Principles – When creating presentation-based videos using PowerPoint, we ensure that ISD principles are followed. As they say, “A picture says a thousand words.” The slides should be largely graphic-based and merely reinforce the narration of the videos. I’ll go into more details in a future GovLoop article.
  • Immediate “BuyIn” – Employees view our SHOTs because they had a need, found a video that relates to that need and physically click it to launch it. They will typically view the entire video because it answers their question or solves their issue. They may also view additional videos related to the same subject.

I truly believe that microlearning videos are on the cusp of a new era of training and learning. Our SHOTs videos are prime examples of this, and we’ve barely scratched the surface. If you’d like to join me in this wonderful microlearning videos era, please feel free to contact me.

Interested in becoming a Featured Contributor? Email topics you’re interested in covering for GovLoop to [email protected] And to read more from our Winter 2021 Cohort, here is a full list of every Featured Contributor during this cohort.

Kelly Barrett has worked for the IRS for over 22 years, starting as a Data Entry Transcriber and worked his way up to a Human Resources Education and Knowledge Management Specialist. Kelly has over 12 years of training project management experience with expertise in eLearning course development and is a certified Instructional Designer (ISD) and Online Training Professional (COTP).

Seven years ago, Kelly began researching microlearning videos and how they can increase retention of training, and using his Bachelor’s Degree in Broadcasting, he started a program called Self-Help Online Tutorials (SHOTs). He has since grown the program to an enterprise-wide initiative with over 500 SHOTs videos for all 80,000+ IRS employees to view, anytime they need to.

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