8 Reasons Why Your Online Training Course Breaks The 8-Second Attention Span Rule

8 Reasons Why Your Online Training Course Breaks The 8-Second Attention Span Rule
Summary: Studies suggest the current human attention span (thanks largely to our ‘black mirrors’) is 8 seconds. What portions of your online training content contravene this tenet?

The 8-Second Attention Span Rule: Why Your Online Training Course Might Be Breaking It

We used to say goldfish and elephants have short memories. But goldfish approach the glass at feeding times (or really whenever you walk by). They can eat themselves to death and seem to forget they already ate. And elephants mourn their dead, which says a lot for their power of recall. We, on the other hand, are limited to 8 seconds before we get distracted. It’s not just our genetic makeup, but tech distractions and emotional factors that steal our mental focus. Even the design of your online training course can put employees’ attention spans to the test. Here are 8 reasons why your corporate eLearning course breaks the 8-second attention span rule.

Is Your Online Course A Rule-Breaker?

1. Big Blocks Of Text

For better or worse, we have adapted to short chunks of text surrounded by ‘white space’. Regular text messages (SMSs) are 160 characters. Tweets expanded from 140 characters to 280. Screen formatting uses generous kerning to render the text less strenuous and more legible. Also, reading from a screen requires more focus than, say, reading a book. That’s why many academics and researchers prefer to print out their documents for review. When you present online course content in big wordy blocks, your corporate learners will zone out faster. Instead, limit wording to short sentences and phrases. Have the 8-second attention span rule in mind, and be ruthless in your editing, breaking long paragraphs into bite-sized checklists or adding subheaders.

2. Lengthy Anecdotes

Context is essential, and case studies are crucial for successful online training courses. However… think about the last conversation you had with a child under age five. They’re enthusiastic and have a lot to tell you. And they’re probably cute enough that you want to listen. But they drone and lose their point frequently. By the time they get to the end of their story – even if you haven’t zoned out – you’re lost. You can’t tell where they started, or what their point was. Online training content often makes the same mistake. Your personal anecdote may contain lots of (necessary) detail, but it’s presented in a dull way. Nobody wants to read (or listen to) three pages of backstory.

Instead, mix it up. You can, and should, still include everything relevant. But cull more carefully to keep it strictly essential, with care to the attention span rule. Then present it as a multimedia presentation. Slip in some infographics, dramatize dialogue scenarios, or shoot video profiles of the main players. Use animated timeline diagrams instead of narrative prose.

3. Lack Of Interactivity

Studies suggest there are five different types of attention:

  • Focused, i.e. you react when touched or if you hear a loud sudden noise
  • Sustained, i.e. you can carry out continuous tasks
  • Selective, i.e. ability to maintain focus even with external distractions
  • Alternating, i.e. shifting between tasks e.g. transcribing
  • Divided, i.e. simultaneously doing different tasks e.g. talking and walking

There’s also external and internal attention. The trouble with many online training courses is they spend too long on a single lesson. They might stretch each class into thirty or forty minutes. As interesting as your online training content may be, your corporate learners are likely to tune out at some point. It helps if your online training material is interactive, keeping them actively engaged. Respecting the 8-second attention span rule, have them type as they study, pick multiple choices, or play a gaming scene. Any type of physical movement will help maintain attention and reestablish focus when it’s lost.

4. Vernacular Woes

There are two vocabulary-related conundrums to consider. The first is that your online training course may not be in the employees’ native language. Which means their attention is likely to wander because they simply can’t understand what you’re saying. Or are unable to absorb the takeaways effectively. The second is using passive vocabulary that makes them feel like observers instead of participants. Favor verbs over adjectives and use active language. They need to feel like they’re part of the action and get a sense of immediacy.

5. Super-Sized Online Training Modules

Employees don’t have the time or patience to sit through an hour-long compliance online training course. Thus, super-sized modules are one of the reasons why your online training course is breaking the 8-second attention span rule. Swap between tasks in short spurts. Create online training modules in five-minute chunks, with each session containing a variety of content formats. It could have infographics, brief audio clips, and some text. During those few minutes, your corporate learner can switch between activities in bursts. This makes them more likely to retain what they learn. It also makes sessions more practical, because they can be squeezed into their day.

6. Lack Of Visuals

Replace words with images whenever possible. After all, employees speak a thousand words, and you can still sneak text into charts and infographics. They serve the added benefit of being easier to remember than inert words. Visuals also hold their attention long enough for them to actually absorb the information. For example, employees see a compelling image that piques their interest. Barriers are broken down and boredom is staved off for another few seconds. According to the attention span rule, this gives you a window to get to the good stuff and elaborate on the image topic.

7. No Context

Your online training course can offer employees real world benefits. But they don’t know what those are or how the training translates. It’s all theory and no practice. This is why your online training course must elaborate on the context and give employees the power to apply what they’ve learned. Simulations, stories, real world examples, and branching scenarios are all great ways to check ‘interactivity’ off your list and put everything into context. Employees are more likely to give it their full time and attention if they can immediately see the advantage of active participation.

8. Information Overload

Employees start the online training course with good intentions. They know it will benefit them and that they’ll be able to apply what they learned in the workplace. The trouble is that there is just too much information to soak up. Instead of whittling it down to the key takeaways, you’ve added every minute detail. Neglecting the 8-second attention span rule often leads to cognitive overload. Just as you checked for long text blocks, you should also verify that every fact or idea has a place. Give them the essentials they need to bridge gaps without overwhelming their mental circuits.


Modern adults have a limited attention span. Some say it’s 8 seconds, while others refute it. Either way, forcing your corporate learners to focus for extended periods is counteractive to learning. Unfortunately, you may not notice your lesson has stretched too long. Here are some of the things you need to look out for. Bulky text, extended exposition, and chapters that need more than half an hour to complete, all go against the 8-second attention span rule. Instead, break up text with images, mix media formats in your online training content, and target the different types of focus. It makes your online training course more effective overall.

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