How can we improve our learners' attention spans?

This blog is inspired by the third episode of our Learning Science Unpacked podcast, with neuroscientist and Sponge partner, Professor Paul Howard-Jones.


The idea of attention span becomes a fluid concept, as people can pay attention and learn for an infinite period if sufficiently engaged.

Attention depends on engagement 

The notion that we have a fixed attention span for learning isn’t helpful. Not only does this place apparent limitations on possibilities, but it also doesn’t reflect our understanding of the way the brain works. In truth, attention span really depends on emotional factors and how engaged your learners are.

For example, across the country teenagers are playing video games and learning, insofar as they will remember a lot of what happened in that game, and they are engaged in this activity for hours without having a break.

During video games, the brain’s reward system is pumping away having similar effects in terms of midbrain dopamine release as taking Methylphenidate (or Ritalin). Video games are commonly considered the ultimate trigger of the ‘flow state’ - a pleasurable state of protracted attention in which a person is entirely absorbed by the activity they are doing. The ‘flow state’ is much sought-after in the world of work due to its impact on overall performance. People in the ‘flow state’ are engaged for long periods, showing that attention and learning spans can be stretched out much further than we might expect, if the activity and delivery mechanism for that learning is designed well.

Spacing improves learning

Another phenomenon that knocks against the idea of attention span is spaced learning – learning smaller chunks of information with breaks in between. The kind of learning takes longer, which sometimes gets misconstrued as inefficient. But, in reality, spaced learning has a much more beneficial effect on learning than amassing components together, so when it comes to impact, spaced learning is highly effective.

Focus on maximising engagement

It’s more critical that we emphasise maximising engagement. This means making sure people aren’t distracted and are processing the information and applying it so they’re learning at the fastest possible rate. Engagement, the constant consideration of workforce transformation professionals, is impacted by many different factors, some of which are touched upon in this podcast and article series.



If you are looking for innovative and science-backed ways to increase engagement and track impact from your learning programmes on the results that matter, speak to our expert Learning Experience Consultants at Sponge. We combine a human-centric approach with an astute understanding of data-driven workforce analysis, to ensure you’re delivering the right kind of learning, in the right way, to the right people.

Speak to our experts about your digital learning programmes today:


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