Less concentration than before: why we need to change the way we learn

Blog / News | 03-04-23

So much is possible in this digital age we live in. Information is available on demand, and we are in constant contact with each other. But there is also a downside to this. With apps and media serving as a continuing distraction, we are finding it hard to concentrate, which threatens our ability to learn. And this is becoming more and more visible in business training and development.

Although organizations invest a lot of time and money in learning and development, research shows that almost three-quarters (73%) of organizations report that mistakes are being made due to a lack of readily available knowledge. In over a fifth (21%) of organizations, this has actually led to physical injury. Being unable to concentrate properly and less able to learn may well be a major factor behind this.

Loss of focus

The myriad apps on our phones, laptops and tablets are constantly screaming at us for attention. In less than a few seconds you get another notification – whether it’s an instant message through WhatsApp, a push notification from news or email apps, or a calendar appointment. We’ve become addicted to getting our stimuli all the time. We check our phone, even if we don’t hear that notification ping. This continuous flow of information puts our brains into overdrive all day long. Instead of focusing on one task, you’re busy switching from one message to another, filtering information, and thinking about whether you’re going to reply or not. This means that you end up with less brain capacity available to convert information from short-term to long-term memory. And there’s a price to pay for that: we can only concentrate well for shorter periods, and we are worse at remembering things.

The Google effect

This development is reinforced by what we call the Google effect. Because information is so quickly available through search engines, we tend not to even store information in our memory. We have known about this effect for more than a decade, and it has changed the way our brains function in the digital age. Instead of remembering information, we remember where to find it. Why remember a phone number when you can just save it in your phone? Now, it might be handy to have all those bits of information at your fingertips. But what about when you want to learn a new language? Or what if you’re in a situation where there is no time to look up information? Let’s say a medical professional who needs to resuscitate someone or a pilot who needs to make an emergency landing. In those kinds of situations, it is vital to be able to call upon the right knowledge and skills at any time.

Remembering critical information

The fact that the way our brain works has changed in the digital age also means we need a different approach to learning. We know it’s easy to find a lot of information nowadays, making navigation an important skill. But for critical situations, such as resuscitation or emergency landing, it’s absolutely critical to remember certain information by heart. You could take any profession and there would be some situation where being unable to recall critical information right away would have serious consequences.

It’s important that we adapt learning methods to the way our brains have adapted to the digital age. Passive learning through long, drawn-out lectures or whole days of training just doesn’t work anymore. We have gotten worse at remembering things, so learning needs to be brief, targeted and active. Spending a whole day cramming isn’t effective, but 10 minutes of interactive learning every day is. That means acquiring new information and processing it directly into the brain, which can be achieved by putting questions, dilemmas or case studies to learners. That way, you actively forge new connections in the brain, creating a stronger and longer-lasting learning effect. We need to use dilemmas, scenarios and issues that resonate with learners. Because only when learning is relevant and in context will the learner actually become open to storing and remembering the content. And ultimately that is what leads to sustainable behavioral change.

Mobile learning

Since we spend so much time on our phones anyway, why not use them to learn too? Mobile learning is easy thanks to interactive educational apps, which often include gamification elements to motivate learners even more. Short stints of active learning in regular intervals ensure that learners stay motivated and that information sticks better. That is what we think is the way forward in making sure we have critical information on hand when we need it in this day and age.