How to Grab and Hold a Learners’ Attention!

For learners to learn, they must pay attention. It is our job as instructional designers and facilitators to ensure learners will be motivated to focus on the content throughout the lesson. This article talks about how to grab and hold learners’ attention!

Motivation has two stages:

  1. 1. Initial
  2. 2. Ongoing

Initial Motivation

Initial motivation hooks the learners by identifying the value and relevance of the content. It answers the learner question, “What’s in it for me?” (WIIFM)
Learners need initial motivation at the beginning of a course to grab their attention. They also need initial motivation as new modules and lessons begin.

There are three important methods of establishing the initial motivation:

  • Tell the value in a simple statement of value
  • Show or illustration the value
  • Ask questions of the learners so they provide the value

Tell has the advantage of being straightforward and quick. For example:

  • Course: Trouble-shooting
  • Target Audience: Telephone software support personnel
  • Motivation: In this lesson, the problem that we are going to troubleshoot accounts for about 30% of your calls everyday!

Show creates great interest and stimulates the imagination.

It may involve:

  • Using a story (This could be a success story or a failure story.)
  • Showing a finished product (This is very powerful in computer training.)
  • Issuing a challenge (What would you do in the following situation?)
  • Using media to show a skill or situation where the skill is needed

Ask has the power of involvement and buy-in. It is a powerful method when the learners are able to describe why achieving the lesson objective would be useful to them. If the topic is so new to the learners that they will not be able to reason why it is useful, then it is better to go directly to a tell or show strategy.

It is good to vary the initial motivation technique throughout the course.

Ongoing Motivation

Ongoing motivation keeps the learners interested and actively participating throughout the learning program.

Once we have the learners’ attention, it’s important to keep it. A data dump is a sure way to lose their interest. So how do you deliver the presentation part of the lesson in a way that will keep interest?

Ongoing motivation is best described by the acronym VIVE. The simple formula guides you to remember to incorporate Variety, Interaction, Visuals and Examples throughout the program.


Just as we appreciate variety in our diet, learners appreciate variety in how information is presented and practiced. Variety helps hold attention and interest. Regardless of the quality of the program, learners “go to the beach” about every 20 minutes in the traditional classroom and even faster in online programs.

Lesson components in which you can introduce variety include:

  • Media
  • Methods
  • Structure of exercises (individual, pairs, group, etc.)
  • Technology used
  • Instructors/Facilitators
  • Question types
InteractionVariety, interaction , visuals and examples are how to grab and hold a learners’ attention!

Interaction keeps the learners actively participating, one of the key adult learning principles.
Interaction can occur through choice of presentation and application methods. Questions to test for understanding also keep learners active during presentation.

The program needs to provide opportunities for the learners to interact with content and with each other, if they are learning in a group.


Visuals add interest, help communicate content, and increase accessibility to information.
In the traditional classroom there are many things for learners to look at: the facilitator, other learners, wall charts, flipcharts, projected slides, manuals, handouts, etc. Making information visual on a whiteboard or flipchart encourages note-taking and validates the importance of ideas contributed during discussion or brainstorming.

Projected visuals and hard copy material should not be identical throughout the lesson. If they are, the learner may choose to focus on the hard copy materials. The facilitator should explicitly guide the participants’ attention to the content being discussed.

In online lessons visuals have increased importance because learners are missing the visual richness of the traditional classroom.

  • In virtual sessions, planned visuals are displayed on the learner’s screen and in any hard copy materials. Whiteboards, slides, websites, and shared documents and applications are among the visuals you can use. Annotating slides during delivery also creates visual interest.
  • In self-directed online lessons (aka CBTs) visuals hold learners’ attention on the screen and to the lesson. Additional visuals may be needed to clarify content and provide examples as a good facilitator would do in the traditional or virtual classroom. Remember that it is more important here to use videos and animations that hold learners’ attention longer than still images.

Examples are often the key to understanding – they can lead to your ‘aha’ moments. Examples are also how to grab and hold a learners’ attention!
It takes both a conceptual explanation and a concrete example to reach many learners. Examples encourage learners to think about how ideas apply in their workplace and thus support transfer of learning to the job.

Examples should be rich enough to be realistic, but not so complex that they are hard to follow.

FKA President
Michael Nolan