We are often asked how long an e-learning course should be. Our answer is always the same: as short as possible, as long as it remains effective. While it is important not to lose sight of your instructional goal, it is now well known that the attention span in adult learners is shrinking. That is one reason why we generally try to make our standard capsules between 15 and 20 minutes and our microlearning capsules no longer than 5 minutes.
Considering the learner’s attention span
Kevin Siegel recently published an interesting article about the duration of e-learning courses. It is part of a study conducted by Joan Middendorf and Alan Kalish from the University of Indiana. The study, which is about the transformation that lecture is undergoing in the digital age, demonstrates that the average attention span of an adult is decreasing : “Adult learners can keep tuned in to a lecture for no more than 15 to 20 minutes at a time.” Therefore, when creating an e-learning course, the learner’s attention span must be taken into consideration.
When an instructor gives a lecture, the average attention span of an adult can be as long as 20 minutes. However, for asynchronous online instruction, it is a completely different story. According to the BBC article Turning into Digital Goldfish, our attention spans are shrinking due to the abundance of information available on the Web. While the comparison with the goldfish is certainly an exaggeration, it is true that learners are now faced with many distractions that could easily compromise a course’s effectiveness.
Sticking to the essentials
Whether intended for novice learners or learners who are comfortable using technology, our courses only contain essential content. We keep this concept in mind for each page and module we create. By combining narrated content, onscreen text and interactive content, we are able to keep the attention of our learners. On average, each page is between 15 and 20 seconds long and the microlearning capsules are 5 minutes or less. The key to reconciling learners and their attention spans is based in part on prioritizing content and determining an accurate estimate for the length of the training.
Dividing content into microlearning capsules
It is best to opt for microlearning capsules when possible to keep the learners’ attention. As Patrick Duperré, the director of learning strategies for our Toronto office, mentioned in an earlier post (French), dividing content into short modules helps users to learn and apply their knowledge effectively in the field. Microlearning also increases efficiency in creating and developing the content. Not to mention, it provides performance-enhancing solutions that are flexible and adapted for each user.
There are other strategies that can help keep learners stay focused; one of them is gamification. This strategy helps capture learners’ attention and engage them more in the learning process. Several studies have demonstrated this, namely one carried out by Karl Kapp, author and expert in instructional technology. Kapp believes that gamification increases learners’ motivation, which in turn makes them more alert. However, this is a complex strategy that requires expertise for proper implementation.
Keeping the instructional goal in mind
If today, a simple click can determine the success or failure of an e-learning course, we can conclude that the duration of a capsule is essential to its effectiveness. Regardless, it is still important to keep your instructional goal in mind and be on the lookout for other strategies that could be used to keep the learners focused on the training. By ensuring that pages last no longer than 20 seconds, and microlearning capsules no longer than 5 minutes, learners remain concentrated for the entire course, which maximizes information retention.
Although the idea now is to develop short training capsules, capsules can still be viewed back-to-back for a more ambitious learning objective. The important thing is to remember to give your learners and their minds a break from time to time.
Samuel Tremblay, Instructional Writer
Jean-Philippe Bradette, Vice-President, Learning Strategies