The better we understand the importance of attention in learning, the greater is our ability to support learning. Attention refers to being on task or having focus. It is crucial to learning and getting work done. The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines it as: “the act or state of applying the mind to something; … a selective narrowing or focusing of consciousness and receptivity.”
So what do we need to know about attention in learning? I’ve been digging around the attention research. Here’s are the key points I think are valuable.
1. Attention can be thought of as a limited resource.
Attention is a limited cognitive resource that can be consciously allocated to various tasks. Attention has important constraints that affect memory and learning. First, people have a limited ability to attend over time such that attention doesn’t remain constant. Fatigue will set in after a sustained effort. Also, because we can only process a limited amount of information simultaneously, we must select where to put our focus.
2. Selective attention equals focused attention.
When psychologists describe selective attention, it equates to what we usually think of as focusing our attention on something. This state of mind occurs when a person selects specific inputs to process while avoiding distractions in the environment (unattended stimuli, as they say).
According to brain imagery, learners may process irrelevant stimuli during periods of focused attention, but to a lesser extent. For example, if you are reading in a coffee shop with just the right amount of low-level noise, you may be bombarded with sensory information. Yet you are able to use selective attention to focus on reading, even though may still hear the buzz of a conversation nearby. For more on focusing attention in graphics, see Use Visual Cues to Enhance Learning.
3. Two different types of sources can capture attention.
Psychologists speak of bottom-up and top-down influences on attention. Attention captured from bottom-up events happens without effort. It’s automatic. Think of how the piercing cry of a baby, the annoying GIF animation on a web page (movement), or the sweet aroma of freshly baked bread captures your attention.
Our senses detect these bottom-up stimuli without conscious effort. Perhaps much of the sensory information that captures attention is or was helpful to survival.
On the other hand, top-down events control attention when an individual makes a conscious shift to focus on something other than attention-grabbing external stimuli. Top-down influences come from an internal source and involve a person’s intentions and goals.
4. Top-down selection is relevant to what is in working memory.
Attention that is directed by top-down goals is most likely based on information held in working memory. This is what makes the information meaningful. We select the stimuli that is relevant to what we are trying to accomplish. For example, if you want to find a certain pair of shoes, you hold the features of the object in working memory. If you want to learn how to be more creative, you hold that question in mind as you search through online articles.
5. Susceptibility to distractions is lowest when a task engages one’s full attention.
Distractions refer to task-irrelevant information. A person uses selective attention to ignore distractions. It is easier to get distracted when a task involves a low-perceptual load, meaning that the task is not all encompassing. Conversely, it is easier to remain on task when the task has a high perceptual load, meaning it is entirely engaging (Lavie, 2005). Perhaps another way to say this is that it is easy to get distracted during repetitive or boring tasks.
6. Multi-tasking divides attention.
When you respond to two or more channels of information simultaneously, you divide your attention. Divided attention appears to use more mental resources because: 1) the tasks may be conflicting, such as listening to one thing and watching another; and 2) the brain must coordinate two or more tasks at the same time. Research shows divided attention reduces performance on a task. (Described in the Eysenck and Keane text, 2013). This will affect how well a person uses attention in learning.
7. The ability to divide attention is influenced by the similarity of the tasks.
When tasks are similar to each other it is more difficult to divide attention between them. For example, trying to listen to two streams of audio information—such as someone speaking to you while you listen to a podcast—makes it difficult to attend to. On the other hand, if one information stream is auditory and the other is presented visually, it is easier to attend to the second stream.
Other factors that affect well how a person can divide attention include:
- Similarity of response required
- Similarity in the types of cognitive processes used
- Difficulty of the tasks (Coxon, 2012)
And in case you were wondering, most research shows that talking to someone while driving—whether on the phone or in person—reduces the ability to react as quickly as when you are not talking. Unlike a mobile conversation, however, a passenger will often stop talking when it is important for the driver to pay more attention.
8. Split-attention in instructional materials increases cognitive load.
Split attention occurs when multiple sources of information are not well-integrated (Mayer, 2001). An example is a narrated explanation that occurs before an animation. Or instructions that need to be continuously referenced and are physically separated from the problem task. This requires learners to hold one set of information in working memory while processing another stream of information. The solution is to integrate multiple sources of information into one coherent piece. See more on the Split Attention Principle in multimedia learning.
9. An abrupt change can capture attention.
You can capture attention via any change in stimulus, which is why novelty works so well. Experienced learning designers will often capture attention with something unexpected, innovative or surprising. In eLearning, you may need to do this repeatedly. See below.
10. Sustained attention requires something meaningful, challenging or special.
Sustained attention refers to focusing on an activity for an extended period of time. Many appropriate strategies for sustaining attention involve the design of learning experiences that are relevant to the world of the learner or novel as in #9 above. In eLearning it could be a moving story of a protagonist who overcomes the odds; a well executed animation for explaining a complex concept; or a challenging problem to solve.
Think in terms of:
- Arousing curiosity
- Interjecting emotions
- Critical inquiry
- Collaboration and knowledge sharing
- Fantastical worlds
Attention, memory and learning have a complex relationship. By delving into how attention works, we can design and support learning in more appropriate and innovative ways.
- Coxon, M. Cognitive Psychology. Sage, 2012.
- Eysenck, M. and Keane, M. Cognitive Psychology, A Student’s Handbook, 6th Edition. Taylor & Francis, 2013.
- Lavie, N. Distracted and confused?: Selective attention under load. TRENDS in Cognitive Sciences, 9:2, February 2005.
- Mayer, R. E., Multimedia Learning. Cambridge University Press, 2001.
- Schmeichel, B. & and Baumeister, R. Effortful Attention Control in Bruya, B. (ed.), Effortless Attention: A New Perspective in the Cognitive Science of Attention and Action. MIT Press, 2010.
Connie Malamed says
Thanks, Becky. You’ve made a good point.
I really liked this summary of the research. Thank you! I see many articles where only one fact is highlighted, which may lead people to make false assumptions about attention and limit their design accordingly. I’m saving this one!
Connie Malamed says
Thanks for paying attention, John.
Connie Malamed says
Yes, Bob. I have heard a few podcasts about Deep Work. Pretty cool. Thanks for the recommendation. I’m sure others will appreciate it.
Bob Roman says
Just finished reading this one. Its about being able to focus on one task. Great Summary.
Summary of Deep Work by Cal Newport
Deep Work describes a method of engaging with one’s professional efforts in a full and immersive manner to produce better results. This type of focused effort does not require longer hours. Instead, a seasoned practitioner can accomplish more in a shorter time frame. Furthermore, the product of this working style will be of a higher quality than what others produce when they attempt to work while succumbing to the noise of distractions around them, particularly those related to technological overload.
Fascinating, Connie! I always enjoy and benefit from your monthly articles. And the podcasts are so useful and support the articles. Thanks for pulling together the latest thinking on attention and learning. Keep going and I’ll keep reading!
Connie Malamed says
I’ve heard about it, Ariah, but haven’t read it. I guess I should. I know this type of research is controversial, but should check it out. Thanks.
Connie Malamed says
Love your idea of informing the learner about the energy and attention needed, just as one would do with the estimated time to complete. BTW, I use Things for one of my productivity apps, which allows you to divide up tasks by energy. Is that what you’re using?
Connie Malamed says
Glad you found this helpful. You know, there were even a few more aspects to attention that I started to include and then realized it muddied things. There’s a lot of research on this!
Connie Malamed says
That’s great news, Caleb. Good luck!
Debbie Nel says
Sooo true. Very informative. Made me think of some of the stuff I learned during my psychology modules.
Great post! I am a middle school teacher and keeping my students attention can be a difficult task. Knowing the science and information behind their ability to stay attentive is valuable. Your post may help me keep my student’s attention in the future.
Aimee Fisher says
I found this article fascinating. I am a third grade teacher and always struggle with keeping the attention of certain students, especially at this time of the year. Number 8 really resonated with me upon reading it. Giving my students a set of directions that are separate from the task is something I feel I do a lot. However, I never stopped to think about the use of working memory in that situation! I never realized that there were so many different aspects to attention. I can definitely use what I learned from this article to make a better learning environment for my students. Thank you!
Ant Pugh says
Great article Connie. Focused attention is often something I think about, whether it’s during the design of a learning intervention or just in my own life.
For example, I have a productivity system whereby I divide my to-do list into High, Medium and Low energy tasks, which means when I arrive at work, I can attack the tasks that require me to have High energy. When I’m getting to the end of the day and my attention is flagging, I can quickly check my Low Energy list to make sure I don’t waste that time doing nothing.
I am interested how we can apply similar principles into our learning design – i.e. could we mention how much energy and focus is needed for each module? i.e. prepare the learner?
Another example of this is Instapaper, which tells us how many minutes each article will take a to read, giving the reader the choice of whether they have the energy to start reading that post.
Food for thought!
Ariah Mackie says
Have you checked out “The Shallows” by Nicholas Carr? It has a lot of interesting commentary about how internet usage has changed the way we focus our attention.