Brain Science: Bursts—Creating Brief Training for Short Attention Spans

Written By

Art Kohn

August 20, 2015

In 1935, Will and Ariel Durant began writing an epic 11-volume history of Western civilization covering 2,000 years of war, culture, art, philosophy, and religion. Unfortunately, by the time they finished the effort 40 years later, the world had changed. People had new ways to entertain themselves and they had little patience for a 10,000 page masterpiece. As a result, one of the great achievements of the 20th century has faded into obscurity.

Forty more years have now gone by, and the preference for short bursts of experience has grown even more acute. Novels, pop songs, and newscasts have grown ever shorter in order to meet the needs of busy audiences.

A similar pressure is being felt in the training industry. Traditionally, training was delivered in instructor-led workshops that lasted from two hours to two weeks. (Indeed, research suggests that the majority of training is still delivered in this way). But today’s audience has little tolerance for this these behemoth sessions and companies are asking whether these extended sessions are delivering an effective return on the investment.

Creating shorter training

There is a growing movement toward replacing tortuous training marathons with brief learning experiences that are delivered, as needed, where needed, via the internet. These brief training experiences have been referred to in a variety of ways including micro-training, short-form training, as-needed training, and my favorite: “burst training.” I like the term burst training because it correctly suggests that the learner is receiving a quick jolt of knowledge.

The ideal burst training can be defined as “Ten minutes of training, within five minutes of its need, to an audience of one.” In the next few months, we are going to look carefully at brief training experiences and we will examine what can and cannot be taught this way, the best training media for bursts, the special power of “video bursts,” and most importantly, how using bursts affects retention and transfer.

Before launching into these topics, we need to answer an important question.

Is our attention span really less than a goldfish?

A few months ago, Microsoft Canada published a report describing an experiment that is supposed to provide insights into people’s attention spans. The document was originally written to give marketers insight into how to advertise to their digital consumers. But the article has exploded within the learning literature, so it is important to spend time examining their methods and conclusions.

In their experiment, 2,000 people filled out surveys and played games designed to measure their digital lifestyle and attention. The researchers also measured the brainwaves (EEGs) of 112 people while they performed various digital tasks.

They concluded that:

  • digital lifestyles are changing the human brain, decreasing the ability for prolonged focus, and increasing its appetite for more stimuli;
  • increased media consumption and digital lifestyles reduce the ability for consumers to focus for extended periods of time; and
  • addictive technology behaviors are evident, particularly for younger Canadians; and
  • the human attention span is becoming much shorter and it is now less than that of a goldfish (Figure 1).

Figure 1: According to Microsoft Canada, the human attention span is less than that of a goldfish

These are some pretty dramatic claims. Let’s take a critical look at each of them.

Digital lifestyles are changing the brain, decreasing the ability for prolonged focus, and increasing its appetite for more stimuli.

In fact, these researchers provide no evidence that “brains are changing.” And even if there were evidence of neural change, these authors certainly provide no evidence that digital lifestyles are producing that change.

But what about the brain scans? Don’t they prove anything?

Please don’t be impressed by their use of the EEG data, it is nearly meaningless. In fact, an EEG is a clinical tool that is typically used to diagnose epileptic seizures and to determine whether or not a person is brain dead (Figure 2). Indeed, the EEG provides such low spatial resolution that it is incapable of identifying which specific areas of the brain are active (you need an fMRI for this). An EEG is quick and easy, but it is incapable of providing a meaningful measure of “attention.”

Figure 2: The EEG hookup looks sophisticated but provides little insight into specific brain activity

Increased media consumption and digital lifestyles reduce the ability for consumers to focus for extended periods of time

In this assertion, the authors have clearly confused “causation” with “correlation.” The only thing that their data shows is that individuals who are more digitally active also spent less time attending to the tasks within the experiment. It does not prove that the digital activity causes a reduced attention span. In fact, it is possible that the authors reversed the causality and that an inability to focus causes increased media consumption. Or it is also possible that some third unknown factor causes both increased media consumption and reduced focusing.

Addictive technology behaviors are evident, particularly for younger Canadians

Their use of the words “addictive technology behaviors” is a classic example of using language in a way that is both inflammatory and misleading. In psychology, “addiction” is a technical term referring to a situation in which a person ingests a substance or compulsively engages in an act that is pleasurable but which can interfere with ordinary life responsibilities. The authors make it sound as though they have discovered a hidden pathology among Canadian youth. In fact, all they “discovered” is that a majority of Canadian youth check their phone while watching TV and before they go to bed. There is no evidence that these actions are interfering with life responsibilities.

The human attention span is becoming much shorter and it is now less than that of a goldfish

The most dramatic conclusion, and the one that got Microsoft all of the press attention, is that technology has somehow made us less focused than the average goldfish. It’s here that the article most egregiously strays from their data. In fact, the UK-based fact-checking site, Ministry of Truth, has traced its long history and discovered that this claim is no more than an urban myth which is based on no real scientific evidence.

A report card for Microsoft Canada

As a university professor I have graded a lot of term papers, and if the authors of this experiment were taking my marketing class, their report would earn them an A+. They included lots of hot-button topics (gamification, brain imagery, addiction) and then they then gave their article the veneer of authority (by adding brain images and fancy statistics). And it worked. The results were then picked up by every news organization who then further diluted it and convinced a noncritical world that digital devices were making their kids dumber than goldfish.

On the other hand, if the Microsoft authors were taking my sophomore-level research design class, their report would earn them a C-. They violated cardinal rules of research, reported inadequate statistics, and claimed outrageous conclusions that were not justified by their data. Shame on them.

Should we move forward with burst training?

As we will see in the coming months, there are many valid reasons that we should consider moving from traditional training marathons to more concise and strategic burst training. And I put the stress on the word “valid.” If corporate training is ever going to develop and improve, we need to be guided by real data and not by the hype and hyperbole of marketers.

Digging deeper

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