The Human Attention Span Non-debate

It’s sometimes an important question for a course/presentation designer: “How long is the average attention span?” or “How long can a person stay focused on a topic?”

It’s a practical question, and you can make important decisions based on that elusive answer. But stay on the question long enough and you’ll see that there isn’t an answer. “How long is the average attention span?” It depends—on too many things.

Let’s look at some figures that have been proposed: Neurologically, “focused attention span” is in the range of a few seconds. There have been studies in the past 30 years that fix attention span at 10 to 20 minutes. Newer studies say (and this we sense from experience) that the average has come down over the years—to 5-10 minutes or so.

If that sounds too low, let’s look way back: Decades ago, some military agencies fixed “attention span,” for their training purposes, at 40 to 50 minutes. Many grad school lectures last 50 minutes, so maybe that’s a valid figure, we might think.

Amidst the confusion, let’s turn the question round:

We ask about learner attention span while creating material, but how come we don’t ask about an instructor’s attention span?

Or, let’s ask this:

An instructor/facilitator will remain focused for the length of a training session, but learners might or might not. So what does “human attention span” mean?

If learners stay tuned in, it’s because they’re interested. This means fewer ambient distractions, and an interesting topic. Or maybe the topic is interesting, but the presentation isn’t, in which case people switch off.

The possibilities are endless, quite literally. People who have breakfast are more alert than those who skip, which means different attention spans during morning sessions!

If there any rules of thumb, they’ve got to be:

  • Know your learner
  • Create engaging material
  • Assuming you’ve covered everything, the shorter the better!


Thoughts? Comments? Drop us a line.