Learning by SNIFFING: Are Learners Really Distracted or Are They Learning Differently? – Tip #135

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The description of learners as distracted or having short attention span is one-sided and unfair. Also, it becomes problematic when this serves as the foundation for a microlearning design.

Being distracted and having short attention span go with the assumption that learners ought to pay attention to some form of content and must finish the entire content. What’s more, the concept of distracted learners assumes they have to complete testing to show they’ve learned the content.

But are learners truly distracted? Or could it be possible that they’re just learning differently?

Neurologist Adam Gazzaley and research psychologist Larry D. Rosen in The Distracted Mind: Ancient Brains in a High Tech World posits an interesting idea: Humans are hardwired to sniff out data.

Unable to Let Go

It’s not a secret that we have a NEW type of learner. But are we focusing on them or are we too in love with our content? It may be that many of us have been too long at our roles as instructors and designers and continue to “force” our formal content as the best way to learn.

Focusing on the Wrong Thing

Formal learning design and delivery has its own place. However, the assumption that learners ought to pay attention to or focus on learning content contradicts what Gazzaley and Rosen calls “sniffing” and “foraging.”

They argue that our brain is sensitive to interference and that this sensitivity is our brain’s fundamental vulnerability. In today’s world, where technological innovations such as the internet and mobile devices abound, it’s easy to imagine how too much information can interfere or “threaten to overwhelm our brain’s goal-directed functioning.”

What’s interesting, however, is that the sniffing and foraging of data is a sensitivity to interference that may work for us or against us. Shane O’MAra, professor of experimental brain research and Wellcome Trust senior investigator, suggests that this sensitivity might have “an adaptive value” and supports our behavior:

Adaptive Behavior

O’Mara further suggests that perhaps, what is a distracting behavior is a substitution behavior. We “forage” and “sniff” because we have devices that serve as “cognitive extensions of the brain” that “enrich our cognitive lives.” We look for ways to find interesting and engaging items (like Facebook photos or Twitter posts) and relegate other data into the background to be accessed when needed (bookmarked or tagged for later studies or future recall).

As designers, this might be an opportunity to look at the right focus: “help learners” to “sniff” valuable data and “relegate” data that may not be useful right then and there.

Microlearning Environment of Successful Sniffing and Foraging

While technology offers many interruptions, it also offers an opportunity to streamline the sniffing and foraging urges. Many apps provide learning systems—chunks of information that allow learners to immerse at their own time and readily apply at the point of need. This is what microlearning is about.


In an environment flooded with technology-driven interruptions, microlearning is the way for learners to dip in without drowning. Sniffing and foraging information can be an opportunity to winnow the non-essentials from the essentials, immerse learning and acquire a variety of skills.


Diana Graber. Kids, Tech and Those Shrinking Attention Spans. Huffington Post, April 30, 2014 Eric Westervelt. Learning In The Age Of Digital Distraction. NPR, November 5, 2016 Tip #60 – Letting Go of the Need to Know Everything: Use Context Setting Learning Objectives Tip #94 – How to Design Unobtrusive Test Questions Tip #124 – Are Instructional Designers Incapable of Micro-Learning Design? Shane O’Mara. The Distracted Mind: Ancient Brains in a High‑Tech World, by Adam Gazzaley and Larry D. Rosen. Times Higher Education, December 1, 2016

Ray Jimenez, PhD
Vignettes Learning
“Helping Learners Learn Their Way”