Your attention span is shorter than a goldfi… Squirrel!

The year was 2015. I was sitting in a breakout session at a training conference and the speaker was about to discuss ways to easily bring animation into an elearning course. As she introduced her topic, she shared a bit of research that was new to me: Thanks to all of today’s technology and distractions that surround us, the average human attention span had dwindled to under nine seconds, which is shorter than the attention span of a goldfish! She even cited this article in Time magazine as her source.

The problem with this eye popping statistic is that it’s actually not based on any research at all. I don’t know anyone in the field of L&D who has made more of an effort to squash this urban legend than Julie Dirksen. If you’ve heard someone use this goldfish/attention span myth recently, you may want to point them to this short video that Julie put together to help dispel the myth as well as clear up the fact that it’s really not based on any research.

There are lots of bad theories still floating around out there. Integrating these theories and myths and practices into your own work can lead others astray and undermine the credibility of your own work.

In addition to the Goldfish myth, a few others to avoid include:

Learning Styles

This is the idea that people learn better if you can teach to their “learning style” – auditory, visual, kinesthetic. This is a theory I actually “grew up on” as I developed my own instructional design habits and strategies. A lot has been written de-bunking the idea that designing learning programs catering to individual learning styles is important. Recently I came across this article that offers the nuanced argument that Learning Style Theory is “mostly false but partly true,” which resonates very much with me and the way I’ve focused on designing learning programs.

93% of what we communicate comes from nonverbal cues

Perhaps you’ve been in a communications training session at work in which you’ve been told:

  • 7% of communication is in the words we speak
  • 38% of communication is in the tone we use
  • 55% of communication is in our body language

These statistics come from the work of Professor Albert Mehrabian and these two articles  (here and here) offer a more complete and nuanced look at these statistics and what they really mean.

People remember 10% of what they read, 20% of what they hear…

Have you seen (or God forbid, used) this:

Dale - Cone of Experience

Will Thalheimer has written time and time again (such as in this article) that, while Edgar Dale did theorize on this, he never actually assigned numbers to his cone and there is no credible research that has ever been conducted that offers numbers like these.

Just a little piece of advice from someone who has fallen once too often for fun facts that actually have no scientific merit: Before you go sharing the next piece of conventional wisdom or eye popping statistic that you think will be interesting to your learners, do a quick check on the veracity of the data.

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