In a recent Illumina blog post, Jean Marrapodi, PhD described our mission as learning designers: to create learning activities that capture and maintain learner interest. She talked about three effective ways to structure learning activities for maximum retention: microlearning, drip learning, and spaced learning. These methods involve “chunking” material into multiple modules and/or repeating content at spaced intervals to help learners overcome the dreaded “Forgetting Curve”.

Yet once we’ve structured our learning in a way that maximizes retention, we shouldn’t stop there. We need to make each moment attention-worthy and memorable.

But how?

Why does something catch our attention?

Portrait of young scared afraid frightened african girl cover face with hands stressed isolated on blue color background

We had a sweltering summer in New England this year. If you’re like me, you were lucky enough to have an air conditioner unit in your window. If you had the A/C running most days this summer, you likely became so accustomed to the sound of it humming in the room that you barely noticed it. But if it began to sputter and make unusual noises, you would notice, wouldn’t you? When something out-of-the-ordinary happens, it catches our attention.

Let’s say your A/C unit sputters for just a couple of seconds on a Tuesday afternoon, and then the problem resolves itself. Two weeks later, are you likely to still be thinking about it? Probably not. In those two weeks, hundreds of other things have captured your attention.

But is that memory really gone from your mind? Let’s say two weeks later, the A/C sputters again. This time, it catches your attention not only because the sound is annoying; your mind also says, “Hey, we’ve heard that sound before. Let’s pay attention to it.” This time, you get up to see what’s going wrong.

What if, when you go to examine the A/C unit, you accidentally knock it out of position, and it falls with a crash, breaking into several pieces outside on the ground? And as it happens, you feel your stomach drop and your heart rate increase? What if your dog starts barking, and your neighbor comes over to see if you’re okay and help you clean up the pieces? Thankfully you live on the first floor and there were bushes to cushion the fall but… oh… never mind. That would be a pretty emotional experience! I’m willing to bet you would remember it for years to come. (I know I will!)

In this scenario, your A/C unit—a useful, but not particularly interesting household item—caught your attention and became part of a memory because it behaved unexpectedly, then it reminded you of something you’d experienced before, and when it fell, it was an emotionally significant experience.

How can we harness these phenomena in our learning design to create attention-grabbing and memorable experiences?

Learners have limited attention, and distractions abound

Business woman dressed in a headset is bored and uses a smartphone while sitting at a desk. Female manager is distracted from work by phoneWe’re constantly bombarded with stimuli—in addition to whatever we’re trying to focus on, there are sounds, smells, sights, emotions, and thoughts competing for our attention. It’s especially important that online learning experiences be attention-grabbing and memorable, because as we know, distractions abound on the internet. Social media and online advertisements are strategically designed to capture our attention. They leverage the element of surprise with notifications, pop-up windows, and splashy banners. Through sophisticated data collection methods, social media and online ads predict with stunning accuracy what content you will find meaningful and what products you are likely to buy. Social media prioritizes the emotionally compelling content that’s likely to make you outraged (like the latest political scandal) or touched (a sweet story about a puppy getting adopted).

Given today’s online environment and our limited attention, how does the mind prioritize? Something catches our attention if:

  • It is significant or meaningful to us. This could mean it’s something we’ve literally seen before. Or maybe it’s similar to something we’ve seen before. Or perhaps we’re not familiar with it at all, but it’s emotionally compelling, so it becomes meaningful to us.
  • It “surprises or confounds our expectations” (Dirksen, 2012, p. 88). Is it loud? Bright? Beautiful? Ugly? Delightful? Annoying? If it’s unexpected in some way, it’s likely to grab our attention.

Let’s see how we can bring these qualities into our online learning to harness learner attention and make learning memorable.

Make learning meaningful

Let’s discuss approaches for making each learning moment meaningful. These strategies will activate learners’ prior knowledge and/or provide an emotional hook that will compel their attention.

  • Guy looking at PC screen feels shockedInclude a powerful scenario featuring relatable, empathetic characters in a believable situation. Learners will pay attention to a situation they can relate to. Take extra care to write realistic dialogue.
  • Include anecdotes, testimonials, or “voices from the field”. Like a scenario, presenting video or audio of people who are similar to learners—other professionals in the same field or their colleagues at the organization—will create rapport with learners.
  • Share a compelling statistic or news story related to the course topic. Whether it’s data from the organization or society at large, establishing real-world stakes helps learners see the course topic in context. A meaningful, relevant course will grasp their attention., which will compel their attention. Review important takeaways from a previous lesson and discuss how this new lesson will enhance the learners’ prior knowledge. If, for example, the first lesson defines key terms and the second lesson illustrates them in context, restate the definitions if appropriate to remind learners of their existing knowledge on the topic.
  • Write a compelling analogy. Sometimes a concept is brand new to a learner, and they won’t have any prior knowledge to tap into. Using an analogy allows learners to access existing knowledge in other disciples to make a connection to the unfamiliar content.
  • Focus on course outcomes. According to Hodell (2021), adult learners want to know why a course is being offered and how they will benefit from participating. Communicate to learners what knowledge, skills, and attitudes they will gain from participating in the course. By providing outcomes—and aligning your course to meet the outcomes—you provide an end-goal for learners to focus on as they take the course.

Embrace the unexpected

Closeup portrait of shocked funny couple of friends in casual style standing with unbeliveable face and looking at camera with big eyes and opened mouth. Isolated,indoor, studio shot, pink backgroundAnother tactic for capturing learner attention is to incorporate something unexpected into the learning experience. By avoiding monotony, we keep learners engaged.

  • Switch up the media approach often. Did the learner just watch a five-minute video? Before showing them the next video, quiz the learner on what they just watched. Frequent, low-stakes assessments like this are effective in capturing learner attention and improving retention of the material and using a variety of media approaches keeps learners engaged (Szpunar, Khan, and Schacter [2013] in Miller, 2014).
  • Use visual and auditory cues to signal important content. This could include spotlights, icons, arrows, or auditory “pings” highlighting any material that’s of particular importance or that the learner will be tested on later in the course.

However, make sure your learning experiences are not too unexpected.

  • Create intuitive course navigation. Not all surprises are good! If the course navigation doesn’t function the way learners expect it to, learners will waste precious cognitive resources trying to figure out how to navigate.
  • Use visuals intentionally. The most useful types of graphics include diagrams, blueprints, maps, hierarchies, flowcharts, animations, and graphs. Excessive decorative elements can distract from learning.

By following these strategies for capturing learner attention, we can make each learning moment enjoyable, impactful, and memorable.


Dirksen, J. (2016). Design for how people learn. New Riders.

Herr, N. (2007). Teaching with Analogies. Internet Resources to Accompany The Sourcebook for Teaching Science.

Hodell, C. (2021). Introduction to instructional systems design: Theory and practice. ATD Press.

Miller, M. (2014). Minds online: Teaching effectively with technology. Harvard University Press.

Wake, C. (2017). 3 ways that social media knows you better than your friends and family do.

Wiley Education Services. (n.d.) Using Graphics in Online Courses.