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All those distractions at work? I can't get enough of them.
Accounting for attention in learning experience design
One effect of writing this newsletter has been the realisation that I lead a very bougie lifestyle.
Two weeks ago, I shared my reflections on a wine-tasting. This week, I’m writing about my experience at a spa. I can feel you judging me, but it’s hard to care way up here in my ivory tower.
My wife and I were spending the weekend in Bath (properly pronounced ‘B-aw-th’). And when in Bath, one does as the Romans did – one soaks in hot water.
We picked the spa, in part, because of the way it looked. Picture polished sandstone columns, mosaic tiling, and lots of natural light.
I ask you to picture it because I couldn’t take any photos.
When we arrived at the spa, we were instructed to place our phones inside Yondr pouches. The pouches were magnetically sealed, and we were told they’d be unlocked at the end of our stay.
I felt more anxiety at being separated from my phone than I’m proud of, but our experience at the spa was richer for it.
Without the opportunity to take photos, message our friends, or look up places to go for dinner, my wife and I had no choice but to enjoy our time together, and pay attention to one another.
While there’s something about the Yondr pouch that’s a little depressing – it’s essentially designed to save us from ourselves – it allowed us to truly experience the spa experience.
And it’s not as if this came as a big surprise. At a deep level, I know that most experiences will be enhanced by greater presence, focus and attention. Yet, for whatever reason, I often embrace the opportunity to be distracted.
In my personal life, this manifests itself in keeping my phone by my bedside, and trying to ignore it when reading a book. At work, it’s allowing Slack, Teams and email notifications to pull me away from the task at hand, particularly when the task is a challenging one.
‘We used to multitask, and then research came out and said you can’t literally multitask. Your brain can’t have your inbox open next to the memo you’re writing while you’re also on the phone.
So everyone, in the first decade of the 2000s, said: “I turned off my notifications. I do one thing at a time.”
But what we didn’t realize is that even when you jump over to check the inbox and come right back, it can be just as damaging as multitasking. When you looked at that email inbox for 15 seconds, you initiated a cascade of cognitive changes.
So if you have to work on something that’s cognitively demanding, the rule has to be zero context shifts during that period. Treat it like a dentist appointment. You can’t check your email when you’re having a cavity filled.
It's fair to assume that, in a workplace learning context, learners are always being pulled in different directions, and being subjected to the ‘cascade of cognitive changes’ Newport describes.
So, how do we account for this as learning designers? If we believe focus is key to reaping the benefits of a learning experience, how do we create the conditions for this?
Something akin to a Yondr pouch might be effective, but invasive. A softer approach would be to provide a nudge at the start of a learning experience, reminding learners they will get more out of it (and probably get through it quicker) if they turn off distractions.
Of course, an even better solution would be to design experiences that are more appealing than the distractions themselves.
Put differently, we need to buy learners’ attention by making the effort to understand what they care about, rather than simply expecting them to pay for something that doesn’t feel relevant to them.
Want help designing experiences that demand attention? Then visit our website or email firstname.lastname@example.org
🎧 On the podcast
This week, Ross G and Gemma welcomed back friend-of-the-show Will Thalheimer, from TiER1 Performance.
Will’s shtick is to take an in-depth look at the literature surrounding learning evaluation and translate that into practical insights for folks like you and me.
In recent weeks, we’ve mentioned him a few times in this newsletter because we use his Learning Transfer Evaluation Model (LTEM) as a tool to measure our own work. Check it out, because it gives a nicely structured hierarchy of techniques you can use, ranging from ‘Attendance’ (low effort, low insight) to ‘Effects of Transfer’ (high effort, but far greater insight).
He joined us on the podcast this time to share insights from the second edition of his book, Performance-focused Learner Surveys.
If you just looked at the LTEM and are now thinking: ‘What the heck? It looks like learner surveys are a pretty crap way to measure learning?’, then listen to the show. Will takes a pragmatic approach to evaluation, balancing the need for insights against the cost of spending time on measurement:
‘It takes time, resources, etc. So it doesn’t make sense to think about evaluating… every programme, all the time. In fact, sometimes we use one [method] for all 50 of our programmes. So then… we’re trying to learn about what’s good about what we’ve created; what we should keep; we’re trying to learn about what we should improve; and we’re trying to get evidence that we’re doing a good job.
‘We want to develop credibility… a reputation… so we can have autonomy, permission and resources to keep doing what we’re doing.’
To hear the full conversation, listen here:
The book, Performance-focused Learner Surveys, is available from all the usual places. And by the way, if you don’t have the time or inclination to come up with your own survey questions, the book is full of them.
📖 Deep dive
Learners, by which we mean: ‘people’, are not all alike. This is an uncontroversial claim, but attempts to define just how we are different are problematic. Since the 1980s, a popular tool for measuring human behaviour has been the Big Five personality traits. More recently, evidence has been found for a sixth trait.
In the field of learning design, a frequent approach is to group learners by their ‘learning style’: a theory that we learn best when the method of instruction aligns with a particular style, as defined by some sort of assessment.
Anyone who has spent any time at an L&D conference or on L&D Twitter will know that to mention ‘learning styles’ is to throw bait to a shark. Here’s an example:
There’s good reason for snark: there is no evidence that learning styles actually exist.
But then, what should we consider when tailoring learning to different groups of learners?
A 2010 paper from consultant, speaker and author Atena Bishka offers the following advice, while dunking on the ‘learning styles myth’:
Performance improvement professionals should direct attention to not only individual differences in learners but also, first and foremost, (a) prior and existing knowledge, (b) meaning and content, and (c) practice and drilling to retain learning,
In other words, the differences we should care about are learners’ previous experiences, the extent to which they care, and how much practice they’ve had.
Bishka, A. (2010). Learning styles fray: Brilliant or batty?. Performance Improvement, 49(10), 9-13.
👹 Missing links
Way back in halcyon days of the Mind Tools L&D Podcast, Owen and I recorded an episode on attention spans with Jonathan Marshall, Senior Capability Partner at the Government Skills and Curriculum Unit. If the idea of ‘buying attention’ versus ‘paying attention’ resonated with you, I should confess I stole that phrase from Jonathan.
According to Hemingway, ‘there is no friend as loyal as a book’. If you’ve ever felt a kinship with your favourite tome, you’ll likely get a kick out of Konjer. Describing itself as a ‘library full of talking books’, the website uses AI to allow you to converse with titles including A Brief History of Time, Why We Sleep, and Thinking, Fast and Slow.
One of the best books I’ve listened to so far this year is Lake Bell’s Inside Voice. I emphasise ‘listened’ because, as far as I’m aware, the book is only available in audio form. Bell is an actress, writer and director, perhaps best known for her film In a World, a comedy about the voiceover industry. In her book, Bell explores how and why people sound the way they do, including the phenomenon of the ‘sexy baby voice’, which she discusses in this interview with Malcolm Gladwell.
To get your week off on the right foot, we recommend checking out this short homage to Ghostbusters 2… and Mr Blobby.
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