I've written several articles about adult learners and attention spans. For instance, there was the article titled "How Long is Too Long?" where you learned that students can keep tuned in to a lecture for no more than 15 to 20 minutes at a time. During that same article I compared the attention spans in humans to the attention spans of the common goldfish (7 seconds for the goldfish; 15 seconds for a human). Then there was my follow-up piece earlier this year (Attention! Attention!) where I provided updated research from Microsoft that suggests the goldfish was short-changed and may actually have an attention span of 9 seconds while the attention span for humans may have gotten worse (down to 8 or 9 seconds).
Each of my attention span articles focused on attention spans of adults and eLearning (asynchronous training where there is no live interaction between a trainer and the learner). In those articles, I recommend that no individual eLearning lesson (or module) play for longer than approximately 5 minutes. (Anything longer than 5 minutes and you're inviting your learner to tune out and drift off to Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, or some other site.
What about learner attention spans in live, instructor-led classes (synchronous training)? While 5 minutes is an ideal playtime for eLearning (mainly because there isn't any human interaction), with live training (be it an online class or onsite), my experience has shown that you can keep a learner's attention far longer. In fact, 75-90 minutes is reasonable assuming you are engaging your learner and not simply lecturing. Nevertheless, even if your teaching style and course content are the best of the best, there is a limit to how long you can go before even an engaged student will cease to absorb your teachings. With that in mind, here is a typical schedule that IconLogic follows for all of its full-day classes (each of our full-day classes start at 10 a.m. Eastern):
10 a.m.: Class Start
11:30 a.m.: Break (15 minutes)
11:45 a.m.: Class resumes
1:00 p.m. Lunch (60 minutes)
2:00 p.m.: Class resumes
3:30 p.m.: Break (15 minutes)
5:00 p.m.: Class ends for the day
The schedule above is based on a 90-minute rotation of actual class time versus breaks (notwithstanding the 60 minutes for lunch). If your schedule is based on a 75-minute rotation, your first break would be at 11:15 a.m. and so on. And while we do end our classes promptly at 5:00 p.m. each day, we usually begin to wind things down at approximately 4:45 each day to leave time for learner questions. I've found that the 15 minutes gives everyone a chance to breath and decompress (our classes are typically jammed full of great content and hands-on activities so the wind-down period is helpful).
What's your take on the training to break ratio for live training? Do you think 90 minutes is best? Is 75 minutes better? Or perhaps you've got some other ratios in mind that you'd like to share? Feel free to comment below.
If you've been tasked with teaching live, online classes and it's something you're just not comfortable with, I'd suggest checking out the live, online certification course offered by the International Council for Certified Online Training Professionals. They've got a class coming up in December and I'm part of a team of certified trainers who will teach the 2-day session. You'll learn everything you need to know to successfully lead a live online class from the hardware you'll need, the software, techniques for engaging the learner, how to prepare your materials, and even how to create compelling onscreen presentations. Come join me, Jennie Ruby, and AJ Walther for an awesome certification event!