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  • Writer's pictureRama Krishna

If you think short attention spans of today’s learners are a challenge to learning - Read On!

Updated: Mar 25, 2021

"Rather than describing it as shorter attention span problem, it may be redefined as an evolving one wherein the content as a narrative is the key."

Learning & Development managers are increasingly wrestling with the problem of what is the right learning intervention methodology. The problem stands exacerbated with specious understanding of ‘Millennials’, and misconceptions about depleting human attention spans.

There is a very strong yet fallacious belief being peddled, that the average human attention span is now shorter than that of the average goldfish. We are also being continuously told that Millennials can barely focus enough to even read through this write-up, at one go.

There is a variety of research suggesting a range, anywhere from ‘Six’ to ‘Twenty’ minutes as human attention span. They are sure missing a point.

ARTICLE: Dispelling common microlearning Myths Harvard Business

This attention span challenge, has brought about a spate of learning approaches that apparently try to cater to the ‘reducing attention spans”, and a whole industry has come up around it.

Those of us who have administered any of these trendy ways of learning, know well the dismal penetration rates amongst users, and even lesser completion rates. This begets a big question, what could probably then be the ‘learning retention, or learning effectiveness’ rate. While per-employee subscription price looks attractive, let us not even try looking at cost/penetration/usage and some such efficacy ratios.

A painstaking effort at looking for data on micro-learning success stories brings about of statistics and articles all over the world wide web by, guess… Micro-Byte Size-ATM-learning tech providers themselves.
Of course, it helps to sell more.

These formats do have tremendous benefits, convenience and significance in the continuous learning journey and scaling it up, markedly on the Skills & Compliance learning side. However these have some serious limitations too, especially when it comes to learning and behavioural change.

Behavioural learning and consequent change in a person needs much more painstaking approach, which is based on experiences, immersion, reflection and guided learning. It is a process.

Learning as we ourselves realise, is NOT a Start-Stop-Start activity. Our brains take time to warm up to the idea of learning, before it starts accepting any new learning input. And this, makes it ‘too huge a byte to bite into.’

Even if we were to believe this attention span myth for a moment and say our attention spans are down to 8-second bursts, then explain, how can we watch streaming media, 3-4 hours continuously, on Netflix and Amazon Prime, regardless of the generation we belong to. Binge Watching ‘Game of Thrones’ to the boot? *Hint: Ask a millennial?

So what does all this mean to Learning function: Our brain receives 11 Million inputs every second, yet it’s capable of processing only a dismal 44-50 inputs consciously. Our mind scans the environment continuously, and blocks out what’s not relevant in order to focus on what makes sense.

The continual effort to sift through the ‘noise of incoherent messages’ is tiresome and we lose focus.

And very often the trainers don’t notice this, because the participants, after all seem wide awake and sitting upright. And of course, we all love hearing ourselves talk, don’t we…

Aim for the mindshare, Think #ExperienceLearning,
Think REEL|Life

Instead of aiming for precision measuring attention spans, and getting caught up in alternative learning fads, perhaps it may be more useful to think like filmmakers.

Every filmmaker knows that if people are sitting passively in the theatre, disinterested and not drawn into the story, they are likely to drop off, and serve you a flop.

If they’re interested in what’s happening – perhaps because you’re using vivid imagery, colourful techniques, telling stories, mixing it up, building intrigue and maybe a little controversy – the participants will be completely immersed in the unfolding story. Ideally you want people to be in the strong attention zone. And, once you achieve that, ‘Eureka!!,’ you have a blockbuster hit at your hand.

We, at ProventusHR use ‘REEL|Life – Learning from Movies’ as a methodology since it is 10x more effective than any other (traditional or tech driven learning methodologies). Not to mention, it is a unique learning methodology underleveraged by any HR & Learning advisory service provider in the country, for mainstream behavioural learning journeys.

The Narrative - most powerful stories ever told, from some of the best storytellers in the world.

So, rather than describing it as shorter attention span problem, it may be redefined as an evolving one wherein the content as a narrative is the key. We already have an overload of information at our end and the key for holding the attention of the information seeker is relevant, immersive and engaging content. When the conventional content is converted into enthralling, in person conversations that comprise of effective stories, intriguing activities, challenging simulations and interesting visuals, it is easier to make a lasting impact on the audience, without them drifting away.

The key to audience involvement now is to move away from pedagogical approach and looking at more andragogical methods of training, that are suited to an understanding of how adults learn.

Adults learn more if they have Audio-Visual contextualization, demonstration and an opportunity for deep immersion and reflective discussion. - Tufts University

While interacting with generations which are visually attuned, the biggest challenge is to make them connect with the content that is being presented to them, with the time, space, engagement and interaction that offers an opportunity for enhanced effectiveness. They have lots of facts and figures available at their fingertips already and google search is just a click away, it thus becomes imperative to come up with a completely innovative way to present information to the participants, which builds on theoretical models and principles, through a narrative that is rich and holds the mind-share.

This is where REEL|Life - #ExperienceLearning plays an important role to win participant mindshare.

And no its not ‘ entertrainment’, it is extremely serious learning through actively facilitated immersion-reflection-learning cycles.

One may ask as to how REEL|Life works with participants across levels?

Here are our 10 powerful ways of learning through REEL|Life:

1. Build a vivid narrative

When we tell stories, and build a narrative around it, people ‘get’ what we are saying—and they remember it. From our childhood we are used to deriving lessons out of stories. Remember Aesop’s Fables and moral of the story at the end of each tale. After all, what better way to learn from stories, if not from the best storytellers there are - the filmmakers.

2. Make it interactive

REEL|Life is also a powerful way of cutting through. But if made passive, it can be counter-productive to holding learners’ attention and to learning. It is easier for the learners to absorb the content, if they actively participate in it. Hence, making it a two sided exchange of ideas and thoughts make learning interactive, and thus effective. Whenever the audience is invited to participate in the discussion, we are effective in holding their attention to what we share with them. There is also a sense of achievement among people who make valid points during the discussion and an encouragement for the others to go ahead and interact.

3. Deploy multi-sensory interventions

Usage of activities, visual images, graphics and colourful techniques is highly underrated as it is one of the best ways to grab the learners’ attention, involvement and ensure that they do not get distracted. Needless to say that whatever has the audience’s attention will also be remembered effortlessly. It is a known fact that people retain what they see, hear and do, much easily and effectively than what they read.

4. Break the monotony

You lose them at ‘monotony’. Curate different practices and introduce a variety of learning elements in a workshop or a classroom to aid learning, and make it a multi-sensory narrative. It’s important to move away from regular pointers and graphic presentations and take them by surprise by being innovative in teaching them newer skills. The plot of the REEL|life, always has an element of ‘What’s Next?’ to keep the participants engaged.

5. Break it into bite-sized chunks

Give people time to reflect upon the teachings and retain relevant information. Take a story, or a part of it, break into chunks, and at the end of every short segment, ask learners to record/share their takeaway from it. Marathon case study approach to learning, may not woo the learner, whereas shorter segments are easier to grasp and reflect upon. Create learning checkpoints using the stop-pause methodology, facilitate learners’ presence all through the way.

6. Engage with Emotion

It is only human to connect with something that appeals to your emotions. When in REEL|Life workshops, learners are facilitated through real life scenarios, we are basically introducing feelings and emotions into the subject, making it easier for learners to connect with and to be able to retrieve the learning before it’s application. We thereby, leverage the power of emotion.

7. Ensuring Contextualisation – on how to apply at workplace

Let the session not be about scripted modules, rather let the participants talk about their own experiences and the challenges that they may be facing. This makes the entire session more relevant to them, encourages voluntary learning, and ensures better takeaways, thus resulting in a bespoke and result oriented training. The learning experience is unique for every participant, while ensuring certain conformity to capability being addressed. This, according to Malcolm Knowles is the key differentiator for serious and matured learners.

8. Make learning progressively intense

It is easier for people to move from one level to another with enough support and motivation. Start with things that are easy and move on to slightly difficult ones. Getting a right balance between easy and hard is the key to holding people’s attention. Too much of either of it and the audience will get uninterested. This is the key to REEL|Life.

9. Gamify it

Gamification of almost anything acts as a motivational factor for doing it. Adding competitive elements such as activities, simulations, quizzes makes people feel invested in a workshop and also makes them feel rewarded at the end of it. After all, everyone enjoys winning. Combine learning to it and you have a win-win right there.

10. Competency to Capability – REEL|Life to REAL|Life

REEL|Life goes a step beyond competency development. We help create a virtual simulation of how human behaviours play out, and help participants navigate the nuances of the same in detailed debriefs. The highlight is that the participants feel competent of being able to deal with increased Capability, in varied real-life situations.

Moving from Theory to Application, Competency to Capability (C2C) for learners is the Magic Trick.

The Business Value Proposition – The ProventusHR Advantage

Many of the daily structures that ensure confidence and coherence in an established organization do not exist in a VUCA situation. What does exist in a VUCA situation is enthusiasm and excitement about new possibilities. However, enthusiasm is a finite resource that can be whittled away as challenges, which are sure to come, arise.

To navigate uncertainty, at ProventusHR, we built a compelling ‘Capability Narrative’ to anchor learnings in and test leadership decisions against.

ProventusHR vision is “To empower ALL learners to OWN their learning, SHAPE their dreams, and CREATE a better leadership experience.” And not just in our workshops, but beyond continuously from their environment.

This simple statement paints the picture of what we instil in all of our learners. It is also the first test for all of our decisions and facilitation design elements. If the outcome statement doesn’t align to the vision, then we don’t do it. This simple stake in the ground creates unity and confidence among the learners, client organisations and provides consistency in the midst of uncertainty and change.

The adaptive challenge of ensuring a clear model was paramount in getting ProventusHR REEL|Life methodology off of the ground. Adaptive challenges trigger emotion and internal uncertainty, since they are encountered through the lens of current beliefs and past experiences. These challenges are dangerous because they can greatly impact the culture of an organization, and its ability to navigate change.

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