Learning Myth #4 — Millennials Have the Attention Span of Goldfish

Does anyone seriously believe this? Unfortunately, yes. We’ve seen countless articles that begin with this premise, as if it were a canonical fact.

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If we are going to talk about attention span we first need to define what it is. (It’s interesting that none of the aforementioned articles that use the “goldfish” statistic ever actually define what attention span is.)

 “Attention span” refers to the amount of time an individual can remain focused on a task without becoming distracted.

Now, think about yourself (whether or not you are a millennial). Can you focus on a task for more than eight seconds? We certainly hope so. It’s hard to keep any job if you can’t. Oh, and by the way, if you’ve read this far in the article you’ve exceeded the mythical eight second number.

And, even millennials are capable of focusing for relatively long periods of time on an enjoyable movie, TV show, video, podcast, sporting event, video game, or dare we say, even a book!

Where did this erroneous statistic come from? As with many learning myths the statistic is not actually grounded in research. It seems to have come from a 2015 Microsoft study. But the Microsoft study only mentions the number in an infographic and references something called Statistics Brain, not its own research.

So, who cares? Why is this erroneous number important? Because it is influencing how we develop content. There is good evidence that we disengage from learning after 8-10 minutes, hence the case for microlearning (see our post Is There An Optimal Length for Microlearning Videos?), but there is no evidence that you need to keep your learning nuggets under eight seconds! What can you actually explain in eight seconds anyway?

It is true that we are more distracted than ever by our mobile devices, and this is a problem. But let’s address the problem based upon legitimate research, not myths.

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