These notes are part of a series for the book.

Dirksen, J. (2012) ‘Ch. 5, How do you get their attention?’, Design for How People Learn, Berkeley, CA, New Riders.


  1. If they’re not paying attention…
  2. Talk to the elephant
  3. Ways to engage the elephant
  4. Summary


Use different techniques to keep the learner’s attention, but be careful to make sure what you do is related to learning the objectives. Dirksen lists five ways to engage learners, and discusses four in this chapter.


Stories are interesting and also good learning tools. Because they progress in a logical sequence they are easier to remember, and the story’s elements help with encoding. They are interesting because there is an element of suspense, so the learner is solving a puzzle while considering the story.

Make the learner the hero of the story by:

Including a sense of urgency is important because people respond to what’s urgent or immediate more than to what’s important. You can’t just say, “This is really important.” In a story, build a sense of urgency by:

With other learning activities, build a sense of urgency by:


Rewards work best when they are unexpected. Getting an expected reward is nice, but an unexpected reward is especially nice. This is one reason why slot machines and video games are popular with some people — they provide rewards at uneven an unexpected intervals, and that builds excitement, anticipation, and entertainment.

Cognitive dissonance is when something doesn’t belong. Surprising combinations are memorable.

Curiosity happen when a person becomes aware of a gap in their knowledge and thus they are motivated to fill that gap. As a designer, you can build curiosity by:

Social engagement

People pay closer attention when they are interacting with other people.

Visuals, humor, and rewards

See also

Dirksen uses an analogy of a rider on an elephant, and that analogy comes from Haidt, Jonathan (2006) The Happiness Hypothesis: Finding modern truth in ancient wisdom.

People pay closer attention when they believe they are interacting with a person, even if they are really interacting with a computer. A study of this is here: Ikita, S., Bailenson, J., and Schwartz, D. (2008) ‘Mere belief of social action improves complex learning’, Proceedings of the 8th International Conference for the Learning Sciences.

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