We have all been there….. you start really interested, enthusiastic, and keen. Your notebook is out, your eyes are wide, and your Starbucks is just kicking in your intellectual edge. You actually did the preview activities this time, so you feel confident. Then it happens: your eyes get heavy, the air in the room feels thick, and you suddenly can’t stop focusing on every ambient sound in and outside of the room. What happened?
Cognitive approaches to learning tell us that the brain has some limitations: space and time. This means that you can’t focus on too much stuff and you can’t focus for too long. The amount of the space and the time are a lot less than you might think. The average adult can only focus on around 5 new items at once and for only around 12-15 minutes. This doesn’t necessarily mean that you have to shorten your classes to only 15 minutes, though TED Talks does an excellent job of just that, but it does mean that no matter how keen your students are when they walk through the door, inevitably most will fall victim to their own cognitive limitations.–unless you do these things:
(1) K.I.S.S Keep It Simple Stupid
I saw this acronym on the side of an industrial freezer at a diner just outside of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. It was posted next to the employee rules as a go-to answer for what to do in almost all cases of uncertainty. When it comes to delivering content, this is a golden rule. As instructors and experts in our field, most of us have a lot to say about any given topic. Unfortunately the more we talk the more we take up the limited space and time available to our students. Plan your lessons ahead and think about what you want to say, then cut it down by 60%. A good rule of thumb is to speak for no more than 3-5 sentences and then turn the focus towards your audience with a question or another small group task.
(2) Make it Meaningful
One of the ways to overcome the cognitive limitations for processing new information is to make it meaningful. Keep in mind that while you are an expert on this topic, your most of your learners are encountering most of this information for the first time. Visuals, connections to other well-known topics, and personalization are all great techniques for helping your audience/users stay focused, and experience more ‘ah-ha’ moments. When a topic is meaningful to your learners, then you tap into their own personal beliefs and values, which will help them remember what they have learned and ultimately stay awake for more.
(3) Increase Interaction
The cognitive mind does have space and time limitations, but that does not mean that it has to be restricted within that frame. Luckily, as human beings, we are able to multitask in non-linear exercises. Each time the learner/user focus changes, the working memory or ‘cognitive functions’ reset and refresh. If the students are only listening to you talk for 70 minutes then you can be sure that for at least 55 of those minutes, most of them were totally zoned out. However, if you speak for 5-8 and then turn the focus to other students, a video, a listening activity, a set of images, a reading task, etc. for another 8-10 minutes before bringing the attention back to you for another 8-10 minutes, you have just guaranteed that most of your users/learners have been 100% focused, so far, on your course content and you are more than halfway (30 +minutes) finished with your 70 minutes course.
(4) Get to Know your Learners/Users
Every person who comes to your course or seeks out your product has their own personal set of beliefs, values, norms and attitudes. They bring these items into the room with them, whether it is in person or online. You need to find out what they value about education and learning and what they believe is the best way to uphold those values. If you are able to create a course and deliver the content in a way that taps directly into what most of your learners believe to be true, then you will have their attention. This could be in the kind of images that they prefer, the type of topics that they like to discuss, or the amount of group work that they are comfortable with. What is their learning style? Don’t always assume that it is the same as yours. Courses tailored to personal norms and beliefs are immediately relevant, meaningful, and powerful.
These principles could be applied to many contexts, not only classrooms. When designing a new product, website, webinar, or training course, keeping these ideas at the top of your mind will not only facilitate learning of a new skill but will also produce changes in participant behavior. We learn and develop when we take part in meaningful actions, rarely when we just read or listen.
If a squirrel only read about nuts, how hungry do you think she would be?