Attention, Cognition, and Online Learning

Twitter-AttentionLast week, I began discussing Michelle Miller’s new book, Minds Online: Teaching Effectively With Technology.  In my post, “Cognitively Optimized Online Course,” I reviewed the first three chapters on online learning, how it works, and the psychology of computing.  In this post, I look at the fourth chapter, on attention.

Sooo … has the cute picture of the little dog grabbed your attention?

And in doing so, have I sidetracked our exploration of attention?

Michelle’s chapter begins with an exploration of the Stroop Effect, and how easy it is to derail attention.

StroopThe link above takes you to a simple task of speaking two sets of words, with the caveat that you speak the color, not the printed word.  It took me about 50% longer to complete Set #2 over Set #1, because my mind kept focusing on the mismatch between the printed word and the color.  Michelle noted that you cannot separate cognition from the mechanisms we use to allocate our cognitive resources…so paying attention to paying attention is important in online course design.

Yet, attention can easily be shifted.  The message ding on our phone pulls us away from the computer screen.  Images in our lessons that do not align with the task impact our attention.

We also have limitations, including inattentional blindness when we focus.  It goes back 8 years ago, but I used the video below as an example of inattentional blindness during a job interview.

As Michelle noted:

“The inattentional blindness effect illustrates a broader truth about human perception and attention, that looking and seeing are two different things – and that we are remarkably prone to missing stimuli when our attention is directed elsewhere.”

… as “The Invisible Gorilla” showed.

While capacity cannot be expanded, it can be altered by practice. Actions that become automatic free up the brain to process other information.  Michelle is quick to note that practice does not mean we can actually multitask…we just think that we can.

Attention is highly intertwined with visual processing, which is another facet of online course design that matters.  She describes change blindness, in which changes to the screen are not picked up readily.  Most people think they perceive more change than they really do.

 Working memory is an area of significant variation among individuals.  Michelle noted that attention directs what goes in to working memory, so again, understanding attention is important to creating a learning environment.

minds_online2Michelle suggested several strategies regarding attention and online learning.

  • Ask students to respond
    • Chunk material into short segments and have students do something (answer a question, click on a hotspot, etc)
  • Take advantage of automaticity
    • Use auto-grading features of LMS’s to provide practice opportunities and feedback, with incentives for completion
  • Assess Cognitive Load
    • You really can do little to impact the cognitive demands of the topic or the individual, but you can impact cognitive load by design features.  Poor instructions or requiring new features without practice can negatively increase cognitive load.
  • Discourage Divided Attention
    • The web is full of distractions, but simply informing students that they should pay attention actually increases attention.

The chapter on attention suggests that educating students about multitasking, making materials as seamless as possible, minimizing extraneous attention drains, and keeping them engaged through compelling activities – these will help with learning in online classes.

From attention, Michelle moves to memory – my next post.

{Graphic: Social Caffeine }

 

3 comments to Attention, Cognition, and Online Learning

  1. Leslie Bowman says:

    I’ve been teaching online and doing instructional design for well over a decade. I find pre-designed courses are missing these elements. First, few of the instructional designers have actually taught the classes they design. Second, it takes $$ to revise/update online courses and so they don’t get updated but every 3-5 years. I much prefer teaching at universities where I design my own classes to address these very issues. My academic coaching focuses on breaking the “multitasking” habit – people just don’t realize how detrimental that is to productivity and learning.

  2. daveleesii says:

    Too funny. Sometimes I believe increases in technology can really distract us!

  3. Britt says:

    Good point, Leslie. I too prefer the “build it and teach it” model.

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