Attention And Learning. Not. So. Easy.

Attention And Learning. Not. So. Easy.
Summary: Why maintaining attention is so hard and what gets in the way of attending? Let us have a look.

Why Combining Attention And Learning Is Not Easy?

Last month, my article was about debunking the notion that our attention spans have shrunk. The shrinking attention span notion was based on fictional “research”. And, unfortunately, we now have practitioners designing for and experts and vendors selling strategies that are based on fictional research.

Learning and Development practitioners must use the foundational research on how we learn as their basis for designing training. It keeps us from falling for fads and using training methods that can decrease learning. Attention is critical for learning. We can’t process, remember, or apply information that we don’t attend to. But attention is problematic.

In this month’s article, I’ll discuss why maintaining attention is hard and what gets in the way of attending. I’ll finish with a common issue that becomes a source of many distractions.

(The Problem With) How Attention Works

In this section, I’ll discuss 3 specific problems with attention that can lead to learning difficulties:

  • The first is how our thinking processes favor attention to obvious problems and changes rather than subtle problems and changes.
  • The second is the way we process different inputs.
  • And the third relates to multitasking, which we now know actually damages attention.

Our thinking processes pay the most attention to obvious danger and changes. This situation works well when the biggest need to pay attention involves attacks from human and non-human predators. Now, however, most of the biggest needs for attention are more subtle.For example, tuning in to subtle signs that tell you to more deeply analyze a situation. And subtle changes, such as bank statements showing small, recurring, and unauthorized charges that can lead to large problems. But, as I said, we don’t naturally pay attention to gradual or subtle changes even though the potential consequences can be large.

Our senses deal with a lot of inputs from the environment around us, but very little of it gets processed. That’s because our attention and memory systems can only process a small amount at a time. We process what we notice that we think is important. But what is truly important and what we are processing can be at odds. It is very easy for attention to get hijacked by highly emotional situations. For example, if someone yells at me, my attention and focus gets hijacked because neurotransmitters push me to deal with what my system perceives as immediate danger. But quite often, what is more pressing and needs our attention the most is what matters, not what what is loud or emotionally charged.

We also have problems attending to information that requires processing by the same “channel”. We think that we process verbal (language) and visual (what we see) information in different “channels.” And these two channels are stored in two different memory stores: Verbal memory and visual memory. There is a greater chance for memories to be stored and made retrievable as needed, when related memories are stored verbally and visually. But when we try to process multiple information inputs on the same channel, we run into difficulties. For example, we cannot easily process two people talking at the same time (verbal channel). But we can watch the facial expressions of a speaker and process her words at the same time (visual channel and verbal channel). This issue has a lot of implications for the design of instruction that I’ll pick up on in a later article.

And if these attention problems aren’t enough, we too often try to multitask. Research clearly shows that we simply cannot and do not multitask. What we are doing is rapidly switching the focus of our attention. And rapid switching often damages both our attention and our performance. Cal Newport, author of the book Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World, helps us understand that multitasking actually damages the ability to focus and leads us to have problems attending.

What Is Attention Doing?

Once we realize all the things that attention is dealing with, we understand we have to overcome a lot of problems to help people attend and maintain attention. Attention actually has quite a lot of work to do, including:

  1. Monitoring the environment for threats and changes.
  2. Ignoring information from our senses that (we believe) isn’t needed right now.
  3. Selecting where to focus, moment by moment.
  4. Helping memory know what is important to process.

With the list of things attention has to do in mind, consider what we do when building and delivering instruction that can help and hurt learning.

Our minds focus a lot on 1 and 2, sometimes to the detriment of other tasks. That’s one reason why I may not see a car slowing to a stop in front of me until I hit their bumper. It’s not so much that I wasn’t paying attention. I simply wasn’t focusing on the (subtle) changes that tell me the car ahead is slowing or stopping. My focus was likely on problems and emotionally-charged issues: A coworker’s comments at a meeting and the person in the car to my right who is playing loud music. Emotionally charged information often hijacks focus.

Wilson and Korn’s literature review (a lit review analyzes a lot of research on a topic) on student attention during lectures found little evidence of a consistent attention span among students. The implications, they say, are that we must do as much as possible to increase students’ ability to pay attention and make sure that students have accurately selected the most important insights.

Szpunar and fellow authors came to similar conclusions on attention while researching online lectures, saying mind-wandering is normal whether the content is short or long. Students trying to pay attention in distraction-laden situations, such as at home when there are more “fun” activities happening around, have a much more difficult time focusing.

Distractions… Out!

One obvious implication of the issues brought up in this article is that reducing distractions is critical. But are laptops helpful or a distraction? I doubt you will take issue with research results because you and I have used our laptop during classes, workshops, and conference presentations and know what happens.It is just so easy to drift away from the person talking to what are mind tells us is critical (but likely isn’t): email, Facebook, you name it.

Using a laptop can have positive effects on attention and learning, but (and this is a huuuuge but) only when they are used for instruction-focused activities, such as taking notes and working on class activities. (Research says we remember more when we hand-write notes.) But when laptops are not used strictly for class-related activities, we see the following negative outcomes: More distractions, a lack of engagement in class activities, and ultimately, less learning.

The likely explanation for this is that laptops (and likely smartphones, as well) increase the availability of distractions. And many times, those distractions feel important but aren’t. Put distractions together with typical attention difficulties and we have a recipe for not learning. Research even shows that people are distracted by the non-course-related activities of people around them.


This situation seems dire but it isn’t. It simply leads us to specific ways to adapt instruction to account for these issues.

Next month, I’ll end this attention and learning series with a discussion of what research tells us works to adapt to attention limitations and support attention during instruction. You may have guessed at some of the suggestions while reading this article. Post those thoughts as comments so we can compare what people posted (how we can adapt to attention limitations and support attention) to what researchers tell us works.