The other day I was viewing an online tutorial for creating Flash ActionScript. The narration stopped, I looked at the screen, and a fill-in-the-blank question was staring at me. It then hit me that I had no idea how to respond, and worse, I had little recollection of the content I had just seen and heard. What happened?

Whether it was something on my mind or out the window, I was clearly not paying attention. And whose fault was this? Probably mine. But I also wonder if there was something about the tutorial that failed to keep my attention. As a designer, am I also guilty of failing to keep the learner’s attention? I hope not. With this question in mind, I thought it might be instructive to look at my design practices through the lens of “attention.” What I found was part reassuring and part lesson in good design.

The problem with attention

One could define attention as “focusing mental resources on relevant features in the environment” — the instruction being the relevant feature in our case. That’s a good start, but it doesn’t capture the dynamic nature of attention. Our attention system, if you will, has several components operating at various levels of consciousness. The most primitive and automatic component provides continuous scanning of the environment — scouting for the unusual, and notifying our conscious mind when it detects something different. We can call this “back-of-mind” attention, based on sensual perception and peripheral awareness. Next, a gateway mechanism operates to dampen the scanning component by blocking its signals to the conscious brain (attentional gating). This gateway can tire easily, and in fairly short order lose its ability to block sensual signals. Pavlov called this habituation. Each time a stimulus repeats, or the longer it remains static, the gateway loses some of its blocking capacity, which we can experience as an urge to move on unless the brain perceives the stimulus as rewarding in some fashion — that is, intrinsic or extrinsic.

The highest order of attention is “front-of-mind” concentration, variously called executive or selective attention, working memory, and focus. It is front and center, and has limited processing capacity — 7 ± 2 items at once, according to most experts. Recent evidence from ADD (attention deficit disorder) research suggests that one can increase this capacity with extensive training. Nonetheless, we know we only have a finite amount of selective attention at our disposal, that it varies among individuals, and within the same person depending on mood, time of day and the like. Moreover, as I just mentioned, unless the brain perceives the stimulus as directly or indirectly rewarding, attention quickly becomes effortful and inefficient. Too much stimulation, or too little, can be distracting. Inefficiencies in the maintenance of concentration arise over much briefer periods than we may think — a matter of seconds rather than minutes. Although not directly analogous to the learning setting, a series of experiments found a 153% increase in errors of commission between discriminating stimuli presented an average of every 2.3 seconds, and then an average of every 10.3 seconds. This is a strong demonstration of the deterioration of attention over time, and the efficacy of external attentional support (in this case, higher frequency).

Two additional dynamics of attention can provide us some guidance. First, attention is cyclical, acting in three different steps: disengage — move — engage. We must disengage our attention from wherever it was engaged, before we can move it to another part of the perceptual field. Without adequate opportunity to disengage before moving on, the old and new overlap, seriously degrading focus. Finally, we know that more-or-less specialized centers in the brain process our different senses. Therefore, attention channels run in parallel rather than sequentially — multiprocessor, as opposed to single-channel. The visual and auditory channels have deservedly received the most attention, but touch, smell, the kinesthetic sense, and even temperature perception can also contribute. An example of this might be using your cursor to track your reading from the screen. The cursor provides a visual cue, but tactile and kinesthetic perception is also involved. This is all useful, because — say it with me — neurons that fire together wire together! The result is strengthened processing and memory (in other words, learning).

Attraction and Distraction

With the brain’s attention system as a backdrop, consider what the most basic element of attraction and distraction might be: In a word, change. Our back-of-mind attention is constantly seeking out change, and is ready to speed the signal to front-of-mind awareness. We see that change can be friend or foe for the instructional designer, or anyone else trying to gain and maintain someone’s attention. For most people, the visual sense is predominant. Here, motion is the strongest attractor, including flashing on-off properties, followed by spatial location, contrast, color, and shape. When viewers have to find an object characterized by a conjunction of properties, such as color and shape, perception becomes much slower and requires sequential processing. The same is true for object size. Attention spreads spatially over entire objects, thus attention to an important aspect of a larger object is more difficult than to a smaller object. Perhaps a bit ironically, the consistency of cues also has a bearing on attention, in that attending is slower when stimuli appear in unexpected ways.

Auditory attractors include tones and other sounds, plus the human voice. Tones are very useful in providing cues to disengage attention. When we speak, we use inflection, volume, pace, and tone of voice. For example, when we want to emphasize something, we might slow down, speak at lower volume, and include well-timed pauses to emphasize an important item.

The modality principle says that people learn more deeply from multimedia lessons when audio narration (rather than on-screen text) explains graphics. We know this through research, but it is also apparent from a common-sense perspective. Attention is sharper, deeper, and more distributed throughout the brain when multiple senses are involved. Not only are the senses working together to focus and maintain attention, there is also less back-of-mind attention available for distractions.

Psychological factors that support or distract attention include several nuts-and-bolts matters. Expectancy can be a powerful attractor: The anticipation of something to come. Anyone who has watched “My House Is Worth What?” on HGTV, knows the power of expectancy to focus the mind. In contrast, anything that degrades perception is also distracting. Tightly spaced text is more difficult to read, as is a screen filled with text. And don’t get me started on fuzzy graphics and text. The same goes for soft or mumbling speech. Complex vocabulary and sentence structure, written or spoken, cause a drag on attention. Split attention, caused by the separation of related elements that you must process together for understanding, causes significant decline in learning. It also affects retrieval, more so as we age.

The nature of the task is also important. Complex tasks, such as learning temporal order (processes and procedures), require greater attentional resources and strategic processing than memory for items. We know that complexity is more detrimental for novices, quickly leading to cognitive overload and extinguishing attention. These are external influences on attention, but we also need to pay attention to important internal factors.

We already know that mood, interest level, bodily comfort, and the like are important to attention and distraction, and that instructional designers have little control over them beyond using pleasing and stimulating delivery. However, designers can often predict the learner's mental state, to a certain extent, and thus can handle it.

Here is a potentially useful paradigm for predicting the learner’s mental state regarding instruction. Imagine two axes, Captive vs. Voluntary and Aversion-based vs. Attraction-based attention. Being captive is to do something out of necessity or obligation, whereas doing something voluntarily is — well, you know what voluntary is. The goal of aversion-based involvement is to avoid negative consequences. Attraction-based involvement seeks to obtain happiness, satisfaction, or a sense of mastery. At first glance, it might seem that captive and aversion-based involvement could be the same thing. There is an important difference, however. I learned ActionScript out of a sense of necessity, but I found very attractive the possibility of including more-extensive capabilities in Flash. My mindset and my willingness to commit attentional resources, were quite different than if, say, my boss had told me I had to learn ActionScript when I had no interest in Flash to begin with.

“Tools are more than just something to make a task easier. They change your way of thinking, of approaching a task (and indeed the nature of the task itself), and can reap unimagined wider social changes.” This quote from Adam Joinson (see References at the end of this article) is referring to the Internet, and an important way in which the Internet has influenced us all in our “online behavior,” the actions and tendencies users demonstrate while using the Internet. Many writers have offered their ideas on this topic, so I will confine our attention to just a few of the more common behaviors.

Impatience is perhaps the most renowned characteristic of online users. Upwards of 75% of all households use wideband connections, with the vast majority saying they have little tolerance for telephone-based access. One piece of research says that there is a 30% loss rate for Web pages that take more than 30 seconds to load. Thirty seconds seems generous to me. Encouraging this impatience is a heightened sense of control that comes with the ability to move on at the click of a mouse. The anonymity of the Web makes it easier to move on when interest wanes, and with fewer social implications.

A piece of research into online search behavior, pointing out implications for libraries, describes “superficial pursuit” — the inclination to move horizontally through titles, content pages, summaries, and abstracts rather than reading in depth. “It almost seems like users go online to avoid reading in the traditional sense,” commented one author. Another called it nonlinearity, or a “surfing” mentality.

Finally, there is the “F” pattern of viewing Web pages. This phenomenon can be described as users not reading text thoroughly in a word-by-word manner, but more often reading the first two paragraphs, followed by scanning down the left side of the content in the final stem of their F—behavior. They'll read the third word on a line much less often than the first two words. Do learners taking online courses act differently than when they are online and otherwise occupied? I could find no research to answer this question, but my guess would be no.

Probably the most difficult aspect of the individual for online learning to address is the need for social immediacy. Scientists refer to this as social presence, with the three dimensions of social context, interactivity, and a sense of privacy. One can understand social context in terms of perceptions by the individual about the experience: sociable — unsociable, sensitive — insensitive, personal — impersonal, warm — cold, humanizing — dehumanizing, and formal — informal. Interactivity is a sense of participation, and of being a part of something beyond oneself. We see a sense of privacy in identity issues, and the possibility of embarrassment. Met needs reinforce attention, whereas unmet needs distract us, calling for attention. Research tells us that when social presence is high, learners are more satisfied, perceive the instruction as more effective, and their learning is improved. Lack of social presence can lead to high levels of frustration, critical attitudes toward the instruction, and lower levels of learning.

To summarize, there are many realities the successful instructional designer must account for when building learning environments. The designer must explicitly consider the construction of the brain, and its natural tendency to detect change and redirect attention. To avoid overlap and confusion, the brain must have sufficient opportunity to disengage attention, move, and reengage. Our brains process our senses in parallel — they can work cooperatively to focus attention, or conflictually vie for attention. The brain is best at perceiving and processing distinct differences in stimuli. Anything less requires additional resources, slowing focus and cognition. Both external and internal stimuli are constantly vying for attention. We can manage them by using attractors, and minimizing distractors. Social and psychological factors are very important to learning — we must meet certain basic needs so that learning can take center stage. Finally, technology changes us — the way we think, and the way we do things. All told, pretty awesome, eh?

What does attention tell us about design?

As I mentioned previously, looking at instructional design from the perspective of attention supports many usual practices, and it encourages us to consider additional ones. First, a quick rundown of methods we’re most familiar with:

  • Yield control. Give learners maximum navigational control with asynchronous designs. For me, a structured path is always the default, but I give learners multiple ways to create their own direction. What’s the alternative — distract them by making them find loopholes in your controls?
  • Minimize distractions by removing irrelevant visual and auditory elements.
  • Use simple, concise exposition (!); don’t make learners work to understand you.
  • Decrease visual density; avoid the cluttered look.
  • Use visual and auditory cues to focus attention. Keep the cues simple, though. Arrows, bullets, circles and the like are great, but don’t use orange and blue squares and triangles together.
  • Use multiple modalities, especially when describing complex illustrations and processes. This is not only more efficient, but more effective too.
  • Use repetition to reinforce important content.

There are several insights I gained from my look at attention, from very simple and specific, to general and all-encompassing. The easiest methods to implement include using silence, or tones, to signal learners to disengage from the prior content, and prepare for what’s coming next. The ideal length of the “gap” isn’t defined, but my experience tells me that a full second is about right. Active transitions, such as wipes, are useful for maintaining visual attention, but make them quick. On this, PowerPoint has the right idea. Complicated and flashy transitions are simply not worth the cost. Their novelty drops to zero after a single use, and can distract attention from the content.

Change the visual field in some manner more often. Of course, time the changes with the verbal content, but get in the habit of adding, subtracting, changing, or moving elements on a regular basis.

Establish expectancy by using anticipatory cues ( examples: empty bullets, progressive disclosure, or “importance instruction”).  Also, consider the appropriate window size for the screen. Text-based instruction may well be best if you present it in smaller windows (640 x 400), whereas use of illustrations and animations calls for larger windows (800 x 600). Standard screen size (1024 x 768) or larger, on the other hand, is a big area for maintaining attention, and can overwhelm its contents. Users will unconsciously separate the screen into sectors that they must process successively.

The most significant lessons from our attention to attention, I believe, are in creating social presence and managing cognitive load. Both are really about taking care that the individual feels a part of the course, and is neither bored nor overwhelmed. Did you notice that both address stress in one way or another? One of my favorite expressions from a decision-making course is “I over E except after S: Intellect over Emotion except after Stress. (I wish I could find a “C” word for stress, so the saying could be wittier.) Therefore, in very large measure, the instructional designer’s job is to manage stress in its myriad manifestations so the learner can be in a state of mind to benefit from our instruction.

Create social presence by using a number of design elements, some of them very familiar. Using the active voice, first and second person, a conversational tone, and straightforward language are well known contributors. So too are meaningful activities that involve the learner. Once or twice is not enough, though. It may be useful to consider the interaction as dialogue rather than monologue followed by Q&A. As Al Capone might have said, “Involve early and involve often.” Encouraging dialogue from and between participants may be the ultimate in creating social presence. For the instructor, or instruction, the issue is one of creating immediacy with the learner. In a classroom setting, instructors accomplish this through eye contact, smiling, being friendly, showing respect, close physical proximity, and revealing personal details, among others. The physical aspects of immediacy are not there for synchronous situations, but the instructor still has his or her voice and personal style to use. Asynchronous learning must rely on the narrative and course structure to accomplish immediacy and social presence. Customized feedback based on user answers is one tool. Pedagogical Learning Agents (PALs — don’t you love it!) are also very useful when used appropriately. In most instances, their mere presence is enough to increase the sense of sociability in learners.

Research tells us that novices appreciate PALs the most, particularly when faced with complex content, and especially when the learner specifically calls upon the PAL. Animated agents appear to be as effective as videotaped humans, and detail beyond the head and face are superfluous. Sufficient animation to show expression like smiling, head nods, raised eyebrowsm and eye blinks significantly improves their presence. Learners expect some realism in mouth movement during vocal playback, but the animation does not need to accurately reflect every word. Simple three or four-point animation is generally adequate. Now that I have praised PALs, a word of caution is appropriate. Except for children, and until animation becomes more sophisticated and responsive, an ever-present PAL can quickly become distracting if used as all-purpose presenter, pointing device, and helper. I advise erring on the side of discretion.

PALs are powerful, but certainly not the only way to increase social presence. Real communication among learners and instructors is also a powerful method. Telephone contact is an obvious presence booster, but mediated correspondence via e-Mail, chat rooms, and bulletin boards is also highly effective. E-Mail is the most highly rated, and appears to best foster interpersonal relationships. It best fulfills the social context, interactivity, and sense of privacy important to social presence. Live chat rooms and/or texting come next, and bulletin boards last. Bulletin boards, with their one-to-many communication pattern, provide the most visible opportunity for embarrassment, and users see them as the most impersonal and the least secure. Other studies have shown bulletin board correspondence to be much more task oriented, with females participating to a significantly greater degree than males. Of special import are the facts that the instructor/moderator is responsible for establishing the behavioral norms for mediated communication, and that their interactivity level has the most impact on perceived social presence.

Managing cognitive load, an idea that Ruth C. Clark champions, appears to me to offer the best design approach to come along in years. Not only are the methods research based, they are easy to use too. Again, many findings reinforce current practices, but others offer new insight and tools. Segmenting, sequencing, and learner-controlled pacing for novice and expert learners is one proven time-honored practice, as is the use of arrows and circles to focus attention, and avoiding split attention by placing explanatory text near illustrations, as opposed to physically separating them. New guidance, at least for me, comes from recommendations to teach components before teaching processes, and separating supporting knowledge from teaching processes. Utilizing more worked examples interspersed among practice problems, using completion examples, and transitioning from worked examples to problem assignments with backwards fading, are revelations for me. Techniques for helping learners automate new knowledge and skills, thus freeing up working memory for additional learning, just make so much sense I wonder where I’ve been these many years. If you haven’t done so already, I highly recommend that you investigate managing cognitive load before your next project.


Overall, I would say that my look into attention has helped me to evolve my design practices, if not revolutionize them. It left me with a much deeper appreciation of my responsibilities as a designer to provide necessary support, so the learner is not distracted and is actively engaged in the instruction. It’s not enough to provide compelling content.

Looking back on my experience with learning ActionScript, I think the designers were trying to stuff too much inside my head at once. I was a novice who could consume only small bits at a time, but they were feeding me large servings full of rich details. It was too much, and my attention shut down and drifted elsewhere. Of course, the boisterous flock of thrushes outside my window wasn’t helping either.


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