Dealing with the Limits on Human Perception, Attention, & Cognition

Part One of a Two-Part Series

By Nathan Pienkowski

Much has been said about the “Modern Learner.”  The concept basically states that today’s modern learners have shorter attention spans, are easily distracted, and like to have information presented to them in nice, bite-sized chunks.  The implication is that modern learners are “lazy” and will not devote attention to your learning program unless there is some instant reward associated with it.  But, is the “modern learner” really that much different from any other?

The fact is, human beings all have limits on what they can perceive and absorb.  Those limits are governed by a few basic factors that all Learning and Development (L&D) teams need to understand.  In this article (Part One of Two), we’ll discuss some of those limits, and how L&D teams can overcome them when developing programs.

Understanding the Limits

From a learning standpoint, humans have limits in three key areas:

  • Perception: Is the person aware of something?
  • Attention: Is the person willing to pay attention to something?
  • Cognition: Does the person retain and use information related to something?

When it comes to perception, we all have a limited ability to perceive things.  At any given time, we are subjected to various stimuli going on around us.  Our minds, however, do us a favor:  They “tune out” things that are not relevant to us.  Stimuli that are not directly related to some goal of ours or that don’t stand out for some other reason, are relegated to the background, enabling us to focus on other things.

That’s why the noise in a crowded room is simply a cacophony of voices—with no discernible words—until someone says your name.  That, you’ll perceive because it’s relevant to you.  Here’s another phenomena you’ve probably experienced while driving:  You may pass 50 billboards that you never even notice…but all of a sudden one pops out at you, either because it’s relevant to you personally or because it offers a higher contrast to the rest of the background than the other billboards.

Now, on to the topic of attention.  We make conscious decisions whether to pay attention to things.  Typically, we pay attention to things because they are relevant to our needs, goals, or motivators.  In many respects, the same factors that govern perception are also at play with attention.

Cognition refers to our ability to retain and use information related to a stimulus.  L&D teams spend a lot of time focused on designing their programs to improve cognition, and that’s a good thing.  However, the first two links in the chain, perception and attention, are often overlooked.  That’s not good.

Beating the Limits on Attention and Perception

If we accept the idea that perception and attention are—in large part—governed by the goals and motivations of the learners, then L&D organizations would be well-served by paying attention to those goals and motivations.  Furthermore, L&D teams should “speak” directly to them when designing and describing learning programs.

In many respects, L&D organizations will need to think like marketers and do the following:

  1. Describe each learning program in a way that speaks to the motivations of the learner population.
  2. Share the “Why?” for each program and relate it to the learners’ goals.
  3. Promote each program: Don’t just place it in the corporate Learning Management System (LMS) and hope for the best.

Regarding the first two points above, consider the following example related to management training.  Of course, all managers want to be better coaches, mentors, and managers.  However, describing a learning program as “management training” that “helps managers to be more effective in their day to day jobs” does not tangibly speak to the motivations of the learners.

Instead, the L&D team must understand those aspects of managers’ jobs that the managers themselves love or hate, or want to minimize or maximize.  One thing that most managers hate to do is deliver negative feedback to team members.  Those situations can be very uncomfortable for the manager and the subordinate, and neither party enjoys the interaction.  Managers would be thrilled to find ways to make that process easier and more comfortable for all involved.

So, when describing a management training program, focus in on those types of tangible things.  In this way, a management training program ceases to be about “being more effective in your day to day job” and becomes about “learning how to make tough conversations easier for all involved,” as well as a host of other similar things managers must do.  That type of description speaks directly to the needs and interests of the learners and is more likely to get the perception and attention it deserves.

Finally, promotion is key to getting perception and attention.  Many corporate L&D departments consider a job done once a program is on the LMS.  The problem is, the program does no good if it goes unused.  Sometimes, a campaign is needed to make potential learners aware of a program and motivate them give it their attention…and to participate.

Recently, we put a campaign in action for a large global organization.  After developing the learning program and establishing it on the organization’s LMS, we developed and executed a broad-based campaign to drive usage.

This campaign included several key components:

  1. Special messaging was developed that spoke directly to the goals and motivations of the learners.
  2. The Corporate Communications Department promoted the program via its newsletters.
  3. Regional champions were designated to help spread the word and focus attention on the new program at the regional level.
  4. Local office heads were given special content and tools that they could use to drive participation.
  5. A direct e-mail campaign was targeted at specifically identified potential learners.

All these efforts helped raise awareness, grab attention, and generate participation.

What’s Next?

Once an L&D team adept at breaking through barriers to perception and attention, then what?  At that point it becomes about maximizing cognition.  Humans have barriers there, too.  The good news is, those barriers can be overcome if instructional designers understand them and address them in their work.  That is the topic of Part Two.

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