Science of Learning: Attention, Please

In 2011, a University of Southern California study figured that each day we were bombarded with the amount of information equal to 174 newspapers. That’s a lot, and it’s only getting bigger. Our brains are getting good at filtering all of the data we don’t need, but more and more, research shows that our attention is a limited resource. When it comes to learning, we have to find the time and energy to simply pay attention.

A Focus on How We Focus

In his series, the Cognitive Science of Education, Peter Nilsson describes our tendency for attention in two ways:

  • Most of the time, our minds are satellite dishes, constantly and passively receiving information.
  • Once something piques our interest, though, our attention acts more as a telescope: narrowly focused in.

By figuring out how and why we use the telescope instead of the satellite dish, we can start understanding how we learn.

Types Of Attention

Nilsson elaborates on these two separate types:

  • Goal-directed attention comes from general curiosity—who’s the actor in that television show?—or motivation to accomplish something—chores need to be done so I can watch more television.
  • Even with a fixed amount of attention to devote, stimulus-driven responses threaten to interrupt us all the time. Loud noises, emotional responses, and temperature changes are all examples of hard-wired factors that can distract our focus.

The Myth of Multitasking

Our ability to receive information, filter it, and give it context is pretty amazing, but select focus comes with a price. Research describes the “cocktail party effect” where guests can easily pick out one voice from the crowd at the expense of ignoring all other voices. We have great ability to process a stream of information, but outside of our telescope lens, that ability falls off quickly.

You might be familiar with the study and ensuing video produced by Christopher Chabris and Daniel Simons involving a group of people passing a basketball. So many people focused so intently counting the passes that they completely miss the man in a gorilla suit who passes through the circle. It’s a telling example of how goal-oriented focus drives us.

Prone to Distraction

There are ways to help keep your attention focused, but considering that research says your mind has probably wandered three or four times since you’ve been reading this post, it’s not always an exact science. We all have different factors that play into how we pay attention. For instance, studies show if we’re feeling happy, we tend to notice more things, but the exact opposite occurs when we’re feeling down.

While it seems pretty obvious, boring stuff is the worst. Evidence shows that we can focus our attention longer when information is presented better. For example, throwing a few relevant images into a text-heavy subject can be like a breath of fresh air for learners. John Medina notes that our brains are wired to look for patterns, and if a slide presentation matches something that the audience has seen before, attentions will stray rather quickly. Taking a break for a quick quiz question or survey is a great way to refresh attention and change things up.

Training Without Attention isn’t Learning

Years of boring PowerPoints have branded learning at work with a negative connotation, giving trainers an uphill battle out of the gate. Using videos, exciting images, and even one-to-one interaction in employee training will break the monotony that our minds are tempted to fall into. If segments of your training feel too long to be interesting, they probably are. Keep things short and to the point. Your employees will thank you and so will their attention spans.

Up next, we discuss how we encode sights, sounds, and other information into chemical signals the brain can understand.

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