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Monday, December 14, 2009

How Long is the Ideal Learning Event?

Let's look at some thoughts on the subject.

According to John Cone, former VP of Dell University (and someone I've worked with on an advisory board so I know he knows a lot on the subject), in an article for Fast Company..."the ideal learning event has a class size of one, lasts five to ten minutes and takes place within ten minutes of need."

A survey conducted by Bloomsburg University of pharmaceutical sales representatives indicated that they desired to have information presented in 15 minute intervals.

According to Chris Bennett, Founder and CEO of Ah Ha! Media, “30 minutes is about the maximum and less than 15 minutes is too short. The exact number of minutes between 15 and 30 should be dictated by depth and number of Objectives in the learning module.” He goes on to say in the article titled “How long should an e-learning course be?” from that, “In a one-hour course, its absolutely fine to have two 18-minute modules and one 24 –minute module…and consider this, most television programs are under 30 minutes sans commercial.”

So where does this short timeframe originate?

A guess is it seems to originate from the 1956 paper titled "The Magical Number Seven, Plus or Minus Two: Some Limits on Our Capacity for Processing Information" by George Miller." (this is an updated version of the article.)

Miller, from Princeton University’s Department of Psychology, reported that human short term memory is able to hold approximately 5 to 7 items in memory at a time. If you expand on a topic list of 5 to 7 items in an educational piece for 3 to 4 minutes, the timeframe works to be approximately 15 to 28 minutes which fits into the anecdotal evidence leading to the desire of having a course length (or segment of a course) to be approximately 15-30 minutes.

Does this seem right or are the lengths of time way off?

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bill7tx said...

What are the criteria for "ideal"? Unless these are specified, this is one of those questions that has no answer.

Is it "ideal" from the point of view of the learner, in some sort of evaluation of utility -- solved a pressing problem immediately?

Is it "ideal" from the point of view of the learner's employer, in some sort of evaluation of economics -- cost + "opportunity cost" for example?

Is it "ideal" from the point of view of an instructor, instructional designer, faculty member -- how quickly a group of learners reaches a 90/90 result on a criterion test?

Beats me. My group once designed an online course in which the average amount of time for learners to satisfy each enabling objective was two minutes or less. Learners and their managers thought that was ideal, ID pros tend to think that's horrible.

Sometimes learning takes place instantly, "one-trial" learning. See Mark Twain's quote about the cat and the hot stove; the cat probably found the experience ideal (though painful) because she only had to go through it once.

This is a question for which there is no answer, except in an ideal world (that doesn't exist).

My opinion. I have no research and no data to prove this.

Bill Brandon
Editor, Learning Solutions Magazine

Donald Clark said...

It depends. If the learners are "doing" (practicing) then they can go for much longer periods. For example when I was in the U.S. Army training heavy equipment we based an instructional hour on 50 minutes. If the learners we in the field practicing (doing) on the equipment, then it was no problem to go for two instructional hours (100 min) before taking a short break. If the learners were in the classroom performing short activities, with perhaps a very short lecture) then one instructional hour (50 min) was no problem. However, if they were mostly "absorbing" by listening, reading, watching, then 50 minutes was too long in most cases.

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Mark T. Burke said...

Great topic Karl

I think we often times confuse a learning event and a class. The two are not the same. Both can be defined to suit the situation. So here is an example. Since my organization teaches music, I'll use that subject. In a single face to face class, I may cover scales, solo work and technical drills. Each are really learning events while the collection of them makes up the class. I agree that 10-15 minutes for each learning event is solid. No matter what age the student, spending more time than that with each learning event doesn't add much to the benefit of the student. I would even add that the true learning seems to take place much faster - AS LONG AS THE INSTRUCTION IS ON TARGET. The first 2-5 minutes are the "ah ha" moments where the new connections are made. The rest of the 10-15 minutes are the time when applying the new learning moves the skill from short term to longer term memory.

Class length is more an issue of age and attention span. The ideal - who knows? No matter the format, the instructor has to know the audience and situation. Sometimes, we can connect multiple learning events into a 1 and a half hour class and see great results from the students. Other times, we have 15 minutes to solve the world.

In the end, I think 10-15 minutes for a learning event seems to allow time for the ah-ha moment and application for retention purposes. After that, most of us are on to something else.