Tactics for Learning

After understanding the four cardinal aspects of effectively stuffing your brain full of information, we have a few tactics to support them. We must manage our attention spans and overall level of energy. The brain is a muscle, and sometimes not a very resilient or strong one at that. We get tired and distracted quite easily. Just like with spaced repetition, we must take this into account and plan around it.

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Tactics for Learning

Clarice’s company is hosting a charity auction to raise funds for their organization. Clarice’s responsibility is to search through the organization’s records to find likely donors based on their past interactions with the organization, collect those names on a list with the potential donors’ contact information, and address envelopes to each of the people who meet enough criteria to be invited to the event.

This task is simple enough, but Clarice was told to add this duty to the workload she already completes in the office, a workload that – though manageable – rarely left her with extra time during the day.

For two weeks, she kept showing up to work and completing her ordinary tasks. But honestly, she had a short attention span and couldn’t focus for more than ten minutes at a time before checking her phone. Her heart was in it, but her effort was lacking. This compounded because as stress stymied her mind, she took more breaks to try to regain her composure and her hope, but nothing was good enough.

Distracted by her other tasks, she waited too long to tackle the new project. She was never going to finish the list before the mailings had to be shipped. Ultimately, she confessed her failure to her boss and needed to be helped by others in the office to complete her task in a timely manner. Because Clarice couldn’t figure out how to manage her attention span and focus effectively, she failed to complete her task and held her whole team back.

Managing Your Attention Span

Despite the fact that classes in school can last for an hour or more, humans are not good at paying attention to one thing for an extended period of time. At the biological level, we are programmed to pay attention to multiple things for short periods of time, instead of focusing on one object. Of course, we can attribute this to our propensity for staying alive by fleeing at the first sign of danger. This biologically leads to short attention spans, and we must learn to account for this in our learning endeavors.

Multiple studies have investigated exactly how long our attention spans are; in one early study, scientists noticed that the quality of the notes students took during a lecture declined in quality as the lecture went on. This led them to posit that human attention spans were ten-to-fifteen minutes long and that we have difficulty paying attention to information after that much time passes.

A different study utilized trained observers to watch students for lapses in attention during a lecture. They noticed peak inattention in three spots: during the initial settling-in period, ten-to-eighteen minutes into the lecture, and toward the end of the lecture. Indeed, by the final ten minutes, they noticed students failing to pay attention as often as every three-to-four minutes. Their conclusion was that declines in attentiveness occur over time, and there is a certain acclimatization period at the beginning, during which we are particularly susceptible to losing focus.

A third study provided students with clickers to press when they found themselves being inattentive during class. This time, the researchers had students sit in on three different types of classes. Some students sat in on a lecture course, others needed to pay attention to a demonstration, and others were in a question-and-answer session. Each student, regardless of the type of class they attended, was provided a clicker with three different buttons. One was pressed to record a lapse in attention of a minute or less, one was pressed to indicate lapses of two-to-four minutes, and the other was meant to indicate lapses of attention of five minutes or more. This data was then mapped onto the lecture or demonstration people attended to observe how a lesson’s style impacted student attentiveness.

They discovered that the majority of lapses were less than a minute long, suggesting that students were much more likely to momentary fade out than to be distracted for an extended period of time. Most of the time, the students were paying attention.

They also discovered that lapses in attention were sooner than the ten-minute estimate previous studies would lead people to expect. Inattention spiked in the students thirty seconds after arriving to class, during the “settling in” period, at 4.5 to 5.5 minutes into class, at seven-to-nine minutes into class, and at nine-to-ten minutes in. Attention of the class as a whole continued to wax and wane with this pattern as the class continued, though there were more lapses in attention toward the end of class, when spikes of inattention could be observed every two minutes.

Perhaps the most interesting finding of this study is that the scientists noted much fewer lapses in attention in the demonstration and question-based teaching styles. When students were more active participants in their classroom experience rather than passive listeners, they stayed engaged more often and for longer periods of time. Taking one of these classes before a lecture course even made that lecture course easier, and students in that position were found to pay attention for longer periods and lapse less frequently. It seems that active learning engages human attention and refreshes it for subsequent, more passive learning sessions.

In short, humans do indeed have almost laughably short attention spans. No matter how flawed the data or study might be, there is a clear consensus of it being only a matter of minutes. But this is not a fate we are resigned to; we aren’t limited to a set short attention span all the time. By using active and engaging learning methods, we can turn attention lapses into minuscule blips and radically improve our learning output.

Consider this an extension of the previous chapter’s recommendation that you take your energy levels into account. As it turns out, our capacity for learning is almost never limited by the time we have; it is more often limited by the energy and attention we have.