Here’s my story. Our in-house courses at AA&Co. were conducted at our firm’s school in St. Charles, Illinois. They ran from 1 day to 4 weeks in length. In our consulting division – which later became Accenture – our line professionals wrote our own course materials and taught the courses. I learned COBOL programming in 4 weeks of 5 1/2 day/week classes that ran from 8:30 am until 10:30 pm (with coffee, lunch, and dinner breaks). Okay, we were smart and motivated – and we were being paid to learn. But how could our firm ensure we’d learn well?
Two years later, when I was sent to write my first course, I was told that researchers had determined that the adult attention span was 10-15 minutes. If the same learning activity continued longer than that, students’ minds went to sleep. So in writing the course, we had to change the activity – live presentation, video, problem solving, reading, discussion, etc. – every 10-15 minutes.
Starting over a decade ago, as Chancellor of the Ohio Board of Regents, I visited Ohio campuses and took special interest in learning about new uses of technology in classrooms. While many professors used various technology tools in their classes, not one knew of the attention span principle that had been drilled into me when I began my professional career.
Years later, in a meeting of university faculty senate presidents, I related my story about the 10-15 minute attention span and asked why professors continued to give 50 minute lectures. I was immediately challenged by a cognitive psychologist in the group. He said he had done research in this area and that I was wrong. I started covering myself, noting that my story was from a finding from 25 years before. The professor interrupted: “My research indicates the adult attentions span isn’t 10-15 minutes, it’s 6-8 minutes. And we don’t give 50 minute lectures; many of us – including me – give 75 minute lectures.”
Given the continuing explosion of information, increasing demands on our time, and new, ever-briefer techniques to grab our attention – consider 6 word newsfeed headlines, 140 character twitters, terse instant messenging notes – those 6-8 minutes have probably shrunk even more.
My conclusion: If we hope to increase the efficiency of learning, educators will have to start paying attention to research-based principles like the “change the activity” rule I learned so long ago. Advocates of new teaching techniques – like the 1-minute lecture (reported on 2 days ago in a Chronicle of Higher Education piece) – appear to have come to the same conclusion, though perhaps without the cognitive research foundation. If learning for some students in some topics can be made more efficient by applying 35-year old research, imagine how much more efficient it may become if we apply the research done since then!