Grab Learner Attention with Your Course Content

Want to cut down on distractions and multitasking during your course?

One of the inevitable battles online instructors face lies in retaining learner attention. Teachers in traditional classrooms face this burden too, of course, but in-person classroom experiences provide a more focused learning environment. Learners can drift away, sneak peaks at their smartphones, or attempt to covertly browse the Internet, but few will be so brazen as to do it in an obvious way.

By contrast, even motivated online learners have to contend with hundreds of distractions just from their browser. If they’re working from home, they may also have children begging for attention, a partner asking for help, or a side hobby lying out in plain sight.

Without someone standing over their shoulder keeping them focused on their course, it’s far too easy for external concerns to draw learners away from their lesson.

Fortunately, online educators have several didactic tools at their disposal for attracting and retaining learner interest. Here are just a few to get started.

Introduce controversy.

Is the dress black and blue, or white and gold? Controversy is captivating. Fortunately, it can also be instructional. Almost every field has its famous controversies, most of which serve as either moral lessons in how not to do a thing, or intellectual puzzles for learners to grapple with. (In the case of the dress, it turned out to be a fascinating lesson in color theory, among other things.)

Controversial topics also provide an opportunity to encourage respectful debate among learners. If an issue seems particularly engaging, try introducing it as a topic in the discussion forums. Or assign the topic to two learners and have them write a joint paper debating the issue.

Tell a story.

One of the best courses I ever took was a freshman psychology course on the human brain. The instructor relied extensively on case studies to demonstrate which parts of the brain control human behavior. Some of the case studies from that course were so fascinating that I still remember them—and the lessons they were meant to teach.

Anyone who’s binged a documentary can tell how what a powerful a good story can be as a learning aid. Stories not only structure information in a meaningful way, they also tap into emotions and other powerful cultural references.

Stories can be biographical, from a secondary source, fictional, or theoretical. So long as they relate to the course material, they will help build a memorable reference point for your learners.

Pose a problem.

What makes a mystery novel so fascinating? Most of us who love a good mystery would argue that it’s not the mystery itself that draws us in, but the problem it presents. Mysteries—real-life and fictional—engage the problem-solving part of our brain. Once we start working at a problem, most of us aren’t satisfied until we’ve discovered some kind of solution.

Of course, problems don’t have to be mysteries. They can be math puzzles, short computer programing tasks, or practice data sets. I once took a linguistic course in which the students were all given sample sentences in an invented language along with their translations, and we had to use that information to describe the language’s grammar. It wasn’t just instructional—it was fun.

Problem-solving is also one of the prime features of gamification. By including a practical problem for learners to work with, they are able to test their skills in a measurable way. Success with practice problems builds familiarity with material, and motivates learners to continue.

Use creative visuals.

Pictures are better than no pictures. But all pictures are not created equal. Maybe you’ve been relying on stock imagery to add a visual element to your course. There’s nothing wrong with that, per say, but there are also better options.

Images do more than provide a visual reference on the page. They also offer a new way to present information—one that includes structure and hierarchy. An infographic, for instance, helps learners visualize a concept or the relationship between two ideas. Or what about a comic? Humor is an excellent memory tool, and a clever visual pun can stick in a person’s head for years.

Compare and contrast.

When two ideas or topics are similar to each other, learners sometimes have trouble telling them apart. By comparing them to each other, instructors draw attention to their differences in a way that makes distinctions more memorable.

These also make for excellent visuals. Think about a pros and cons list, or a table that compares uses of different products. For instance, if you’re teaching a cooking course, you might want to run down some standard kitchen items and describe how each tool is best used. Or, if you’re comparing belief systems, you could emphasize different values.

Ask questions.

The Socratic method, named after the classical Greek philosopher Socrates, has been an influential teaching method for hundreds of years. By asking a series of questions—and allowing the learner to provide the answers—instructors can challenge learners to think more deeply about a subject. Instead of passively absorbing information, learners must put it to use.

Instructors often save questions for the quiz at the end of a lesson, but there’s no reason they can’t be incorporated earlier. Try asking questions at the beginning of a lesson or midway through, and encourage learners to look for answers as they read through the material.

Flip the classroom.

Most of us are used to a classroom model in which we attend lectures, then go home to put the lesson material to use. In a flipped classroom, this structure is reversed: learners review the lesson at home, then use class time to engage with the concepts.

Enacting this structure online is a little tricky, but it can be immensely successful for those who pull it off. Maybe it’s time you gave it a try!

Attention is precious.

Creating an attention-grabbing course isn’t just good for you—it’s good for your learners. Material that’s harder to pay attention to is usually harder to master. The more a learner’s attention is divided, the more likely they are to struggle in your course.

On the other hand, when course material attracts and retains interest, learners waste less energy policing their own attention. Instead of depleting their mental resources in an attempt to force themselves to focus, they can devote their full attention to absorbing the lesson.

A thoughtful, well-designed course can be an attention magnet. And when that happens, learning new material becomes an enjoyable pastime, rather than a chore.


Laura is a marketing specialist with experience presenting at WordPress events in Ann Arbor and Vienna. She speaks Russian and German and holds a double MA (Hons) in History and Russian Studies from the University of Edinburgh.

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