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Understanding Attention and eLearning: A Primer on the Science of Eye-Tracking

One of the drivers of the original Learning Actions research was a concern that in learning, as in so many facets of life, our subconscious mind undermines rational thinking, decision making, and behavior; yet the ‘adult learner’ has been (universally) seen as fully competent, autonomous, and self-directed. The premise itself seems to be irrational…perhaps the definition of irony?

In the end, my research validated that as learners attempt to consume content presented to them in learning environments that their attention, motivation, and capacity to rationally evaluate new information ebbs and flows. Explicit and implicit biases, along with countless other distractions and inefficiencies in their learning actions undermine learning – this is (and always has been) the reality of ‘adult learning’ despite what your text books might tell you.

For instructional designers, understanding and embracing the learning actions research is empowering; it provides needed perspective and makes a critical connection to closely related fields of cognitive psychology and behavioral economics. We now know that we must architect learning experiences to nudge learners to focus, to slow their thinking, and to leverage far more efficient learning actions.

In a recent Facebook conversation facilitated by Julie Dirksen, the idea was raised that eye-tracking might be used to study engagement in eLearning. For background, those in the discussion are unlikely to be familiar with the Learning Actions Model or to be practitioners of the model…yet they were exploring a topic that very much aligns with our on-going research. And the conversation moved me to dig into the evidence base a bit more and ensure I was up to speed. My guess is that there are far more robust ways to get at attention and engagement  – we have had success doing that at ArcheMedX – but there are surely some lessons to learn from the existing eye-tracking research.


While I spend a few days pulling at the threads, I thought it might help to share a variety of resources that I initially found…and perhaps there may be some others out there with a similar curiosity. Many of these are simply starting points and I’ll be working around pay-walls and fluff to find the real answers, but in the meantime, I hope this helps!


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Brian is a research scientist and educational technologist. He helped transform Pfizer’s Medical Education Group and previously served in educational leadership roles at HealthAnswers, Inc.; Acumentis, LLC.; Cephalon; and Wyeth. He taught graduate medical education programs at Arcadia University for 10 years. Dr. McGowan recently authored the book "#socialQI: Simple Solutions for Improving Your Healthcare" and has been invited to speak internationally on the subject of information flow, technology, and learning in healthcare.

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