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Our attention spans are shorter than a goldfish!

Updated: Sep 20, 2023

Modern learning vs. traditional learning in the world today

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How many of us only watch a YouTube video if it is less than 5 minutes long?

Shorter the better right? Why? Because then we know they will get to the most relevant point or teach us the “how-to” faster?

How many of us stop watching within 5 seconds if they do not get to the point right away?

Mindvalley recently launched their new app “Mindvalley Quest”, the concept being that mobile app users want abbreviated lessons for topics they want to learn.

We tend to abbreviate the traditional one-week workshop to one day, then that one day to a two-hour course, then the two-hour course to the crucial twenty-minute topic. But is that enough? And are we still getting the main point across?

Traditional learning in a modern world


Traditional methods of learning or “macro-learning” are what traditional colleges and universities have thrived on.

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While I personally love being in a classroom I can see the issues with the format now that we have been exposed to new digital methods of learning. Especially since the global pandemic.

Traditional formats were instructor-led classes and even more recently massive open online courses. This method throws content at learners and we have to wonder if it ever really worked.

Personally, I retained what I needed to retain to pass an exam or write a paper, but if I was asked to recall that knowledge now I would be hard-pressed to do so!

What are the challenges with traditional methods of learning?

Traditional methods have a number of issues.

1. Too much information is presented at once

One day during my MBA, my class was required to sit through eight hours of accounting class, which included a 130-page PowerPoint of theory and data. It was the very definition of “pointing a hose at a wine glass” — Grovo. The chances of retaining all that information? Zero.

2. Information can be out of context

If the format, structure and planning of the courses are not in context, i.e. if the accounting course was after our business plan structure or finance and investment course, the accounting theory might be more relevant with this additional context.

3. No application of theory

No direct application takes place in the classroom which might not instil the confidence in future managers that we can actually balance the books, spot errors, or know how to maximize tax regulation to the company’s benefit. Skills need to be developed and built and applying theory is the crucial component of that learning.

4. Working memory is overloaded

German psychologist, Hermann Ebbinghaus called it “Spaced Learning”. He challenged that progressive injections of new knowledge have a rapid memory decay on the brain. That learning is better when the same amount of study is spread out over periods of time than it is when it occurs closer together or at the same time, i.e. eight hours of accounting theory is not going to be retained!

While we can learn things quickly through digital models, we may not learn them as deeply as traditional methods.

However, if we are to believe Dr. Ebbinghaus, the repeated practice would enable people to retain more knowledge with each repetition. Not only the repetition but the application, i.e. the more we use the information and the more we apply the information, the more likely it is that it will end up in the long-term memory banks!

“The journey of a 1000 miles, starts with one step.” — Laozi

Neuroscience of Learning

Learning solutions must be grounded in the neuroscience of learning but be adaptive, evolving to deliver quick snippets of information in the format to which we’ve now become accustomed.

50% of 385 employees surveyed by Software Advice indicated that they would be more likely to use their company’s learning management system (LMS) if the lessons were shorter.

Bite-sized chunks of information can improve learning by 17%, making it more efficient than traditional methods. This not only mitigates cognitive overload but also supports long-term retention.

By giving a little bit of information at a time we can allow the skills to be developed, incrementally, and build more complex skills over time.

Other than just retaining information, this creates the impulse to build habits and thereby behaviours and that can have real consequences in the real world and on role performance.

Micro attention spans

A modern learner is immersed in the reality of quick bursts of information and learning through digital formats. Today's employees and individuals are feeling overwhelmed with information, yet more distracted and impatient for information than ever.

The old saying was that millennials have “the attention span of goldfish”, but these days that is being generous! Dianne Dukette, MD and David Cornish, MD, doctors at Kaiser Permanente, claim that “the continuous human attention span may be as short as eight seconds, while a goldfish seems to have some of us beat at nine”.

What does that mean to training or learning? Well, it means if you don’t capture their attention in five seconds they move on.

This trend is not just generational, the advent of new technologies and new sharing of information means that all of our attention spans are changing. Everything comes at the brain quickly these days, videos on YouTube, text on Twitter, images on Instagram, ads on FaceBook, and the new sensation of TikTok takes all that to the extreme. We have all adapted to receive information quickly and to select our infotainment

While these platforms can activate the short-term memory they are limited and can decay, however, repeat the information enough times and our long-term memory can store it for a long time. A “brain break” allows us to move the processed information from the short-term into long-term memory.

“It’s a cultural and cognitive shift: old and young alike are consuming more media than ever before.” — Learning Solutions

Microlearning is quickly becoming such a critical part of the e-learning landscape.

Digital training demands

As training moves to more digital formats, it’s creating a new reality in learners’ jobs and their behaviours.

We are learning at our own pace and on our own terms

We are creating habits and preferences such as length of training, the context of training and wanting to be constantly entertained and engaged.

We want flexibility in how and where we learn.

Entertainment is already on-demand with networks like Netflix and Prime, and now we have to learn on-demand, AltMBA offers online MBA studies, YouTube has added new formats for on-demand documentaries, Spotify now has informational podcasts, we have apps like Calm to teach us to meditate.

We are taking over our own learning and development.

If we cannot learn it well and we want to learn it fast, then we move on to the next platform. We want to learn from the experts, if we do not believe in their integrity then they will move on to the next expert.


Currently, the Association for Talent Development (ATD) estimates the average time spent training is still over 30 hours per employee (higher for larger companies), and for whatever reason, that’s actually five hours longer than it was a decade ago.

Yet, traditional training is no longer working, primarily because it is:

  1. Expensive — it requires more time and more resources than digital alternatives. It is a financial burden to spend $140BN every year on training that is ineffective, yet we continue to do it.

  2. Slow-moving — it does not have the capacity to keep up with a constantly changing work environment. Productivity slows as employees do not use digital tools at work proficiently, thereby doing the opposite of what was intended!

  3. Obsolete — it cannot keep up with the changes that are taking place in the digital world. Deloitte estimates digital skills have a half-life of just 2.5 years for any given role. What does this mean? It means that digital skills need to be upgraded every few months and are obsolete in only a few years. Likely this guesstimate is even shorter with the move towards machine learning and artificial intelligence.

L&D in organizations need to be aware and integrate the new trends before they are left behind.


“Microlearning is the process of building successful behaviours in short, focused segments. It’s an approach to learning that uses small moments of real-time behaviour adjustment to create continuing performance improvement in individuals and organizations.” — Grovo

Microlearning is the slow-and-steady tortoise to the cognitive-overloaded hare. During the pandemic, we moved to a more virtual world but when it comes to learning we were already enmeshed in the new ways of learning.

We have all become demanding when it comes to learning! We want:

  • information to be readily available

  • only the relevant information to our task at hand

  • information to be as short as possible to get the job done

“Learning in stretches of 3–7 minutes matches the working memory capacity and attention spans of humans.” — Shift, Disruptive Learning

“Do you know how-to…” is echoing around the world and is the most common question for colleagues over “do want to grab a coffee?” The most popular use of YouTube is “How to…” videos and that is how it has continued to grow and be the video platform of choice.

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Using microlearning as a guide. Shorter is always better and is best delivered in an easy to consume format, particularly video.

This does not mean we lose sight of the larger objective, and learning goal, but because of our (lack of) attention spans we need to cut the fluff. We don’t need a week-long training when a twenty-minute video can cover the same topic for what we need right now, today!

“Microlearning strips training down to its most essential skills and knowledge — no time for a wind-up and wind-down, no tolerance for dull regurgitation, no room for fluff.” — Jeff Fernandez


Deeper learning will always be required and necessary to expertise.

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But if we are teaching behaviours, habits, processes, then we can consider complementing existing systems with microlearning.

What if we had a YouTube for employees? Let them train themselves and find the most relevant company-approved training through an interactive and flexible learning platform?

Imagine being able to type in anything you need to know and want to learn at your workplace and gain new expertise and knowledge instantaneously.

The same way that we might do it with YouTube but with some special modifications:

  • adapted to your company and industry

  • specific to your department

  • faster and focused on your role

A non-linear, point in time, microlearning platform.

What we need when we need it.

Now that is a new age and we may finally keep up with the digital changes as they happen. Microlearning is not something new, but adaptation is extremely slow.

We are now challenged with creating hybrid working environments so why not compliant our learning with hybrid learning environments. Training can be available online, anywhere in the world.

Give Netflix a run for their money and create an on-demand learning platform! Youtube for Your Workforce. Why not? Go ahead and steal that title!

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