10 Active Learning Methods to Retain Short Attention Spans

Boring PresentationA huge misconception that has been shaping the design of learning content for meetings and conferences is that, in order to retain the attention of participants, presentations should be short with a new speaker brought on stage. This is based on the fact many studies have concluded that:

  • Adult learners take 3 - 5 minutes to settle into a learning environment. Attention tends to wander after audiences listen passively for 10 - 18 minutes. As the day progresses, attention spans during passive learning fall to as low as 4 minutes. (A. H. Johnstone and F. Percival)
  • Attention spans and recall from presentations begins to decline after 15 minutes (Ralph A. Burns)

The key is passivity. When engaged in passive learning such as listening to a presentation, the optimal time that adult learners stay tuned in is about 15 - 20 minutes. After that, attention declines sharply. Changing speakers every 15 - 20 minutes does nothing to address this. Think of it. If attendees sit passively and listen to a parade of speakers delivering one-way, wall-to-wall presentations, their mode of engagement has not changed. They are still in passive learning (listening) mode.

The Truth About Short Attention Spans and Learning

In Research Findings on the Seven Principles, M.D. Sorcinelli completed an in-depth review of research that concluded that varying the approach to learning from passive to active and engaging participants through active learning results in higher levels of attention and more effective learning.


A more effective approach to designing learning content is to ask speakers, facilitators and presenters to ensure that they use passive learning methods for no more than 15 - 20 minutes and then involved participants in an active form of learning.

10 Active Learning Methods to Break up Presentations

  1. Short simulations.
  2. Discussions.
  3. Brainstorming Exercises.
  4. Case Studies.
  5. Games (A board game or card game related to the topic is perfect for kinesthetic learners. A video game that is related to learning content is perfect for audiences with a younger demographic. They can work in pairs.)
  6. Energizers.
  7. Artistic Content. David Usher illustrated this perfectly at Ignite Business Event Expo Last Week by using music to add variety to his presentation. Drama and visual arts can also work well. Encourage speakers to bring their unique talents into presentation and keynotes.
  8. Question Periods.
  9. Periods of Quiet Reflection It is important to give introverts and analytical learners time to pause, review what they have learned, and prepare a summary with key learning points and how they can be applied when they return to work.
  10. Participant Summarized and Mini-Presentations. Summaries can be prepared in the form of infographics, storyboards, Pinterest boards.

For Further Reading

We will continue our discussion about adult learning principles and their implications for designing learning content. In the meantime, here are 4 books that training and development professionals use that would also be extremely valuable to event planners who make decisions about learning content:

  • The Modern Practice of Adult Education: From Pedagogy to Andragogy by Malcolm Shepherd Knowles
  • The Accelerated Learning Handbook: A Creative Guide to Designing and Delivering Faster, More Effective Training Programs by Dave Meier
  • Creative Training Techniques Handbook: Tips, Tactics, And How-to's For Delivering Effective Training by Robert W. Pike
  • Thiagi's Interactive Lectures: Power Up Your Training With Interactive Games and Exercises by Sivasailam Thiagi Thiagarajan

For more information, read Meeting Presentations: How Short Is Too Short?, Catering to Kinesthetic and Visual Learners and 12 Strategies to Engage Conference and Meeting Participants on the Cvent Event Blog.

blog comments powered by Disqus
Subscribe to our Monthly Newsletter
Receive updates on the latest trends, best practices, and strategies
to transform your meetings and events