Multitasking Vs. Continuous Partial Attention

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Continuous Partial Attention (CPA) is an automatic process that enables people to simultaneously pay attention to several sources of information, whilst scanning for relevant information. It allows people to shift from superficially concentrating on a lot of information to focusing on highly relevant information during a short attention span.

Multitasking is apparent human ability to perform more than one task at the same time. It is driven by a conscious desire to be productive and efficient. Studies show that it is impossible to focus on more than one task. Therefore, multitasking often results in a high error rate.

It might sound like two sides of the same coin, but multitasking is wildly different than continuous partial attention—especially for eLearning purposes. Natural human behavior dictates how your learners react to certain material, and in a world where time is a precious commodity, organizations must decide exactly how they want learners to experience and absorb information.

Should eLearning be something that learners merely “get through?” Or is it more effective to choose a more fluid delivery method? The truth is that it takes a deeper look into both how the brain works and how modern technology affects behavior to truly understand what divides the page turners from the languid listeners.

What is the Difference between Multitasking and CPA?

They’re sometimes used interchangeably, but the terms “multitasking” and “continuous partial attention” are vastly different in terms of learner behavior.

We all know the pro multitasker: She can do more than one thing at a time, and her goal is always efficiency and getting things done. Multitaskers are focused on checking off boxes and to do so, such as checking email while eating lunch or taking call notes while doing research. Multitaskers are driven by results and task completion, which can sometimes result in a lack of quality.

Now, contrast that behavior continuous partial attention (CPA). It means paying attention to multiple things at once; not necessarily completing tasks. You’ve probably engaged in continuous partial attention when you walk on the treadmill while listening to a podcast, sent a text message while sitting in a movie theater, or laid in bed and gone over the latest sales numbers (with a late-night TV show in the background). Continuous partial attention taps into human nature: We crave instant satisfaction, and being able to pay attention to a couple of things at once and receive automatic feedback makes us feel good.

Learners who engage in CPA have the ability to concentrate on more than one thing at a time, and as such, are able to maximize their time–both at work and in leisure.

CPA for eLearning

The takeaway for understanding the difference between multitasking and CPA is this: organizations have to try harder to mold eLearning to their learners’ natural behaviors. The idea of page-turning eLearning might work for multitaskers, but ultimately results in lackluster information absorption. Instead of experiencing the material fully, it’s seen as just another item on the to-do list.

Instead, integrating CPA delivery into existing modules in short, pithy, three-to-five minute bursts means learners can listen to an audio clip, play through a few levels on a gamified module, or watch a video, all while their attention is split. Relying less on eyes-on-the-screen eLearning means learners are more likely to tune in and, since they aren’t rushing to get through the module, actually absorb the information more effectively.

The world of eLearning is moving quickly and learners’ time and attention is more divided than other. Organizations have two choices: They can fight for that attention share with longer, more involved modules, or cater to waning attention spans by developing custom eLearning design and configuration that works in tandem with learner behavior.

Which side of the coin do you want to be on?