For years I’ve seen the practical limit for attention spans pegged at ten minutes, at least as it relates to listening to lectures. I’d never really seen the research base, though, so whenever I’ve been asked about the practical attention span for listening, I’ve resorted to very squishy language like, “some experts say learners start to lose focus after about ten minutes, but that can vary wildly based on a number of factors.”
So I was intrigued to read the following recently, from the article An Active-Learning Strategies Primer for Achieving Ability-Based Educational Outcomes by Gleason et al. (2011):
Student attention during a traditional 60-minute lecture increases during the first 10 minutes, declines steadily for the next 45 minutes, and then increases again during the last few minutes of the lecture. Similarly student retention of information presented during the lecture declines. substantially after 10 minutes and continues to diminish until the last few minutes of the lecture session. Immediately following the lecture, students remember approximately 70% of information presented during the first 10 minutes of the lecture but only approximately 20% of that presented during the last 10 minutes.
The authors pegged these claims to three forty+ year old articles–but, hey, being old doesn’t make them wrong. Unfortunately, all three are either unavailable online or are locked behind paywalls. I was able to find a 2007 literature review by Wilson and Korn on this topic, though. They conclude:
It is clear that students’ attention does vary during lectures, but the literature does not support the perpetuation of the 10- to 15- min attention estimate. Perhaps the only valid use of this parameter is as a rhetorical device to encourage teachers to develop ways to maintain student interest in the classroom.
They point to methodological problems with the existing research base as well as an inability of subsequent researchers to replicate results.
Someone once told me that ID really stands for, “it depends,” and that’s certainly the answer to the question, “how long can learners remain engaged with lectures?” It depends on the skill of the instructor, the knowledge level of the participants, the inherent interest level of the participants, the physical environment, and, likely, a good number of other factors. It’s like asking, as one commentator put it, “how long is a piece of string?”