If someone were to ask you right now, “What are you doing?” you would probably say that you are reading. Yet you are doing so much more in the background and in the foreground of your amazing brain. First and most importantly, you are keeping yourself alive by telling your heart to beat, your lungs to breathe and your other internal organs to function properly. Your brain is monitoring your internal world to keep you healthy and comfortable. This is all handled by the brain stem, the most ancient part of your brain. The stem runs all the automatic systems that keep your body alive and connects the brain to the rest of the body through the spinal cord and the nervous system.

The wonderful thing about the brain stem is that it does all of this in the background, so we don’t have to spend valuable attention energy focusing on just staying alive. So what do we consciously attend to? You might think that you are in complete control of where you direct your attention, but that is not the case. Your brain is hard-wired through eons of evolution to pay attention to potential threats, mates and food. In order to remain vigilant our brains scan our environment, looking for anything that might endanger or support our survival. This information will always take us away from other tasks that don’t register as high on the survival scale. On average, we’re able to focus on a single subject or concept for about 8 seconds – 4 seconds less than we could pay attention in 2000 and a full second less than the amount of time a goldfish can pay attention. See these and more interesting statistics on the Statistics Brain Institute site.

Of course, we can turn our focus back to the task at hand with effort, but we’ve already paid a price. It’s called “switch cost” and it is the amount of time and energy the brain must expend to move from one object of attention to another. Each time our focus shifts, the brain must re-assess the new situation and re-orient to what it was doing before. These fractions of a second add up, both in terms of the total amount of time it takes to complete the task and in terms of how much energy is expended to perform it.

What are we to do? How can we hope to deliver engaging learning experiences when today’s digital culture and our own biology are so against us? Professional drivers have learned to steer into a skid instead of fighting it. The same is true for working with the brain. We can’t hope to change the way it operates, so the best thing we can do is work with the existing attention span instead of against it. Since you can’t count on having your learner’s attention for very long, you must build in ways to capture and continually re-capture attention by appealing to the survival bias of the brain. Here are a few approaches that have been useful for my clients:

Teach your audience how attention works

Begin each course with an introductory module or lesson on How We Learn. By presenting information on how the brain works, you will stimulate conscious and unconscious thought on how to pay attention, how to recall information and how to master new skills. You can also give your learners permission to pull themselves back into the course whenever they feel their attention wandering. One of the most popular courses on Coursera right now is “Learning to Learn” by Dr. Barbara Oakley. You can hear her interview with me here and sign up for her free course here.

Use Priming to awaken neural connections

This technique, called “priming,” alerts the brain that something new is about to happen and we should pay attention. Priming introduces key concepts in advance of the actual learning event, so that the brain can prepare by engaging neurons involved in related or prior learning. It’s sort of a movie trailer for your brain.

Build survival cues into your content

The brain selects items in short-term memory for conversion into our longer-term memory. It does this by evaluating or scoring each item in short-term memory in terms of criteria related to the survival value of the information. Knowing this, you can intentionally make your case for your content by deliberately linking your content to survival. In today’s world survival doesn’t always mean that we are in an immediately life-and-death struggle. It may mean that we are in danger of losing our social standing, our income or our self-confidence. Don’t assume that our audience will make the connection between mastering a new software application and doing well on the job; it is up to you to make that connection for them and explicitly address it in the training.

Build plenty of repetition into your lesson plan

Many instructional designers will present a particular point once and then revisit it in a knowledge check or activity later in the course. That is simply not enough repetition to ensure that the information will be understood and retained beyond the post-course quiz. Remember that the brain is programmed to recognize patterns. New information presented only once or twice may be deemed unimportant for future survival, but something that has been said, demonstrated and performed repeatedly within a narrow period of time gets recognized as a new and important pattern. Be careful not to simply say it over and over again in the same manner. This approach runs the risk of being perceived as a standard part of the experience background. Things we see all the time get suppressed in our attention, so that we can focus on what may have changed. You want your content to be the change that grabs attention, not the background. While the number of repetitions required seems to vary depending on the study, most training experts are suggesting a number between six and eight.

Keep your lessons as short as possible and provide plenty of breaks

Because your audience is constantly switching back and forth between attention to your content and attention to other things in the environment, they are experiencing switch cost. Since you can’t stop switch cost from happening you must design your course to account for it. Make sure that your modules are as brief as possible, so that your learner can get a short break between bouts of new information. If you’ve been delivering an intense, data-packed lesson, follow it with something more visual or playful. This break needs to be physical as well as mental so encourage learners to get out of their chair and move around. (Yes, even if you are designing self-paced eLearning. If you prepare your audience in advance that these breaks are happening most of them will obey when you ask them to do something physical during the course.)

Refer back frequently to previous lessons and show how they are linked to new information

As you move through the course, most of the information presented in earlier lessons will have some application to later lessons. By making very clear connections back to earlier parts of your course you will signal that this information is important and will be used again, so it must be moved into long-term memory. You will also be providing a “safety net” for those learners who may have been attending elsewhere when you presented the information the first time.

Force the learner to complete the pattern

One of the most powerful survival tools we have is the ability to recognize and anticipate patterns. Our brains are so good at predicting the next step in a sequence of events that we can often predict what is going to happen before it does. We can use this ability to recognize and complete patterns in our instructional design. Experiment with using charts, tables, cycles and other images in class that are incomplete. Force the learner to draw on what is already known to complete the pattern. The act of completing the pattern requires much more activity in the brain, recruiting more neurons in the effort, than simply viewing a completed pattern. The more neurons you recruit in the thinking process, the stronger the connection between these neurons will be as the brain integrates this pattern into other patterns it already knows.

You can also take advantage of pattern recognition in your participant guide, by leaving blank spaces where important information will appear. Your learners will want to complete the book, so they will keep coming back to pay attention to those parts of the course.

Use social learning to keep everyone focused

Because we are hard-wired to be social creatures, we’re always looking for opportunities to connect with individuals and enhance our standing in a group. You can take advantage of this behavior to create a “buddy system” for learning. Pair people up and ask them to help each other stay on task and watch for moments when their attention seems to be wandering. Stop the course now and then to let people compare notes and share their own observations, so they can fill in the gaps that may have occurred during one of the brain’s moments of wandering attention.

Take actions that will attract attention

Our brains are hard-wired to pay attention to stimuli that might alert us to a dangerous situation, so changing the sound of your voice, playing music or other audio clips, throwing things, big gestures, bright colors, movement on the screen and other attention-getting choices will help keep the brain coming back to your content. Be careful not to overdo it, however. As with other brain-aware techniques, if you use it too often it becomes part of the non-changing background, rather than something that demands our attention.