Maintaining learners’ attention is a critical issue in training design because attention is the entryway to all information processing. A recent study shows that distractibility is a common trait among most people, not just one that exists in those diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. In fact, researchers have long recognized that people have an attention span of approximately ten minutes. That is, learners’ attention increases from the beginning of training programs to about ten minutes in. After that point, they begin to mentally check out. This “ten-minute” rule provides a useful framework for structuring training programs.

Dr. John Medina, author of “Brain Rules: 12 Principles for Surviving and Thriving at Work, Home, and School,” explains how he designs lectures around this concept. First, he segments lectures into 10-minute intervals. Each interval covers a core concept and relevant details, with explicit attention to how the core concept relates to the rest of the presentation. After 10 minutes, he injects learners with an emotional jolt that shifts their attention back to the speaker. This emotional jolt is often a relevant business-related anecdote that foreshadows later content. For example, in a talk about how brain science links to business, Medina uses the following anecdote to illustrate the central problem of vocabulary. He describes the vacuum cleaner company, Electrolux, which is based in Sweden but began to break into the North American market. They did not have any Americans on staff though and crafted an interesting lead marketing slogan: “If it sucks, it must be an Electrolux.”

When people experience an emotionally-infused event, the amygdala (the alarm system of the brain) releases dopamine, a chemical that is crucial for memory and information processing. Emotional arousal helps the brain learn. The brain certainly does not pay attention to boring information and this approach helps ensure learners are continually re-oriented toward core material.

As a facilitator, you may consider structuring your training program in a similar way. Every ten minutes, shift topics or communication mediums and have learners discuss or insert an emotional “hook” to keep learners engaged.

Additionally, incorporate frequent breaks. Research suggests that brief diversions from tasks can significantly improve focus and performance over prolonged periods of time. Dr. Alejandro Lleras likens the process of gradually losing focus on a task to sensory perception. When a particular sight, sound or feeling stays constant over a certain period of time, it no longer registers in the brain. For example, you habituate to the feeling of clothing on your skin to the point where it vanishes from your awareness. Similarly, during training, you may habituate to a particular idea the facilitator is conveying to the point where it disappears from awareness. The brain is wired to notice and respond to change and breaks provide the change needed to help people maintain focus.  Experts, in particular, who are very familiar with their training topic, have a tendency to relate too much information without breaks. Perhaps because they are so immersed in the content, they become removed from their learners’ perspective and forget that novices require breaks to digest information and integrate it into memory. Do not overload. A spaced, measured approach consisting of 10-minute segments aligns much more closely with how the brain works.