Is there an 'optimal learning time' before switch off?

This article explores the common question “how long should an eLearning course be to keep learners engaged” including:

Inquisitiveness and curiosity

Inquisitiveness and curiosity are natural human traits. It is these traits that help us to understand our surroundings and to develop as infants, and these inherent aspects of the human psyche continue into adulthood as we foster what psychologists call epistemic curiosity. This is the action of obtaining new knowledge that stimulates us intellectually and filling in the bits of information missing in our existing knowledge and is unique to humans.

Despite this thirst for knowledge and growth, there are limits.

Anyone who has ever sat through a less-than-engaging face to face training session or online course understands that after a while, our brains begin to switch off, and we stop retaining the new knowledge that is being fed to us. This disconnection is what learning designers spend their time trying to avoid.

There are differing opinions on the optimal time frame for engaging and retaining the interest of our learners. Let’s look at the below three examples as information sources for calculating optimal learning time.


Engaged Learners

Even if we are highly engaged with the subject matter, there are limitations on learning time. A learner may enjoy their educational course and understand how important it is to pass the module, and yet research suggests that attention begins to wane significantly after around the 10 to 15 minutes mark.

TED Talks

However, the renowned learning resource and host of digital and in-person lectures TED has set an optimal 18-minute limitation on their lectures. TED backs this up by saying that 18 minutes is enough time to achieve the serious discussion of a topic while retaining the attention of attendees. If we take TED’s assertions into account, we can expand our parameters to between 10 and 18 minutes — this is still substantially shorter than the typical enterprise training module.

Microsoft Study

Some sources — for instance, a Microsoft study published in 2015 — put the numbers even lower. Microsoft’s study suggests that our attention spans fell to only eight seconds in 2013, down from 12 seconds at the beginning of the century. That’s a whopping 25% shrinking in just a few years.

While the science behind this focuses on the digital marketing segment, it does not translate well for the enterprise learning environment. This drop in attention span means that learners expect information to be clear, concise, easy to dissolve and fast to ingest.

Optimising Enterprise Training and Development

So, how can enterprise training resources be prepared to optimise the learning experience? 


Are Shorter Learning Sessions the Answer?

The most obvious answer is to edit training events and learning resources so that they fit within the 10 to 18-minute window that has been collectively identified as optimal.

This would ensure that the training — or at least this specific module of training — can be completed before the brain starts to lose focus. The learners receive all of the information they need, and no time is wasted having to go over the bits and pieces that may be lost during longer sessions.

Unfortunately, this is not going to be feasible for all kinds of training.

While swiftly delivered, 10-minute learning sessions may be enough in some cases, other types of learning will require a longer, more focused approach. There are also logistics to take into account — dividing training into 10-minute segments will make the entire process a long and laborious one, something that many businesses will want to avoid.

Consider the Triggers that Lead to Loss of Focus

Rather than placing a hard and fast limit on the length of a learning session, it is more effective to consider the triggers that are causing this drop off in attention.

Part of this problem is monotony — if the learner is simply sitting there receiving information passively, it is far more likely that their mind will begin to wander. One way to avoid the trigger of monotony is to introduce soft breaks, disrupting the tone and flow of the delivery. This may be in the form of an interactive Q+A, a call for a personalised response, participation in a poll or an interactive event that requires their input and attention. Or it could simply be a change in visual stimulants.

Any of these gives learners the chance to exit the state of passive information reception and re-engage their cognitive faculties. Following this reset, the brain will begin a new 10 to 15-minute window of focus.

The 85/15 Rule

It may also be useful to consider the information that is being delivered.

Research has shown that learners often already possess 85% of the knowledge that is being delivered to them and simply need recognition activities that will acknowledge this information.

Think about this when designing learning and help your learners to unlock their existing knowledge through active collaboration and engagement.

You can then focus on the crucial 15% of knowledge in the “10-minute” window, optimising the attention and engagement of the learners. This is a far more efficient method of delivery.


Optimising the learning experience

Yes, there is a limit on optimal learning time before “switch off”, but this does not mean that learning and development sessions need to be limited. Instead, we need to rethink and reframe the content we deliver and the way that learning is designed.

What is needed is creativity and innovation in the way we deliver information, drawing upon the learner’s inherent knowledge (85/15 rule), using soft breaks, and collaborative engagement to truly optimise the transfer of knowledge.

The old adage, ‘short, sharp and concise’ is no longer a dirty saying or something that is thought to deliver low quality or less impressive outcomes. It’s the new target for learning and the best possible way to engage our learners.

We don’t have to cut out important information or cut down learning time. It’s about delivering ‘just’ the relevant information, in the most relatable way, in the quickest possible time.

This is our best opportunity to deliver a learning experience that is engaging, relevant and relatable for the learner and efficient for the enterprise.

So to all the newbie elearning designers out there, stick with this mantra and you’ll never go wrong…

“Give them the information they need to know and let them go!”