Microlearning: Six Tips for Best Practice

In an age of increasing workplace complexity that leaves little time or headspace for a full-on immersion in a traditionally designed learning program, microlearning can seem like the perfect answer.

Microlearning refers to short, focused pieces of learning content, delivered at the point of need. But it’s not just about size or duration, although when microlearning first emerged as a term, it seemed almost like an antidote to traditionally longer learning programs, and so the focus was often on duration. 

And while video might seem almost synonymous with microlearning, microlearning can take many media formats, from short professionally produced videos, to simple animations, to job aids, to reflective exercises. It can be media rich or simple text and images, documents to download, or interactive digital experiences. This diversity of delivery format reflects the demands of the modern learner: increasingly learners are looking for choice in modes of learning, so providing a varied range of formats becomes increasingly important.

And yes, microlearning experiences are short – typically 2-4 minutes (but sometimes up to 10 minutes depending on content and purpose) –  and they usually cover a single concept or idea. This makes them ideally suited to a mobile viewing experience, making them available anywhere learners want to learn, any time they have a few minutes to learn, and close to the point of performance.

The bad news is that it will take more than just converting everything to microlearning to solve all your problems. Because while microlearning units or segments may stand alone, they don’t, or shouldn’t, exist alone. Like lots of the tools we have available in corporate learning, microlearning only works when used in the right context and the right way, and there are some guidelines you need to consider if you plan to use it. Microlearning is one component of a learning environment that, used in conjunction with other types of learning, offers a powerful approach to delivering short, varied, and impactful learning experiences at the moment of need.

Here are six principles that should underpin your approach to make your microlearning project a good news story:

1.      It’s About Learning

Microlearning as an approach has its origins in some not-so-new but important insights from the science of learning, including science around cognitive overload, and the role of memory in learning. Microlearning as a learning approach is essentially about minimizing cognitive load, in layman’s terms, not overloading someone with information, so that we maximize their potential to actually learn.

When we sense information, for example we see visual stimuli in an animation, or hear a voice explain a concept in a podcast or lecture, we hold this sensory information in our short-term memory and then if we need to (if our memory system decides we want to), it will go into long term memory.  If we can’t attend to these stimuli, we can’t learn, so attention is vital.  However, more crucially, if we overload someone with information, then the less cognitive capacity they have left to attend to the stimuli and move on to actually process that information. So minimizing the load of information, and supporting that information in ways that make it easier to process – for example putting context around the concept, making connections to previously learned material or related information, making it personal and so on – all help the learner begin to encode or make a robust memory of the concept.

By going micro, and so limiting the amount of material we initially communicate to learners, we increase the chances that they will take it on board.

2.      One Ingredient in the Blend

Microlearning is most effective when it is part of a carefully designed approach to a whole learning experience, which may include elements of microlearning combined with other learning approaches: a blended approach combining micro and macro learning formats, for instance, or a spaced approach that combines spaced microlearning events with face-to-face classes or workshops. That doesn’t mean that you can’t use a microlearning approach as the primary delivery format for a particular program. If a large part of your offering is based on delivery via microlearning, however, that approach should be taken only if you are confident that the types of skills or knowledge to be developed can indeed be built over small bite-size segments, which collectively will achieve the targeted outcomes and positively impact knowledge, retention outcomes, skills, and performance.

3.      Scaffold Learning with Proven Strategies

Using microlearning does not exempt you from the need to design an engaging and impactful learning experience. A successful microlearning approach uses techniques of effective learning, such as repetition, practice, recall, and variation to increase learning retention and improve performance. It can be used to scaffold learning towards building a more complex understanding or skills, and it can be a highly effective approach within a spaced learning strategy, enabling opportunities to learn, recall, practice, revisit, develop, practice, and build further knowledge.

4.      Micro goes with Macro

Microlearning doesn’t replace the structured learning that will sometimes be required to develop, for instance, in-depth knowledge or complex skills, but it can co-exist successfully with macrolearning, where each has its own clear purpose and value. So don’t view it as an ‘either-or.’ Look at how you can combine macro- and microlearning approaches to complement and support each other towards achieving your end goal.

5.      Every Minute Counts

Microlearning doesn’t work as a silver bullet solution to demands for shorter courses by simply chopping up 60-minute courses into shorter bite-sized nuggets. Microlearning is an opportunity to do something meaningful in a short period of attention from a learner – each microlearning moment must be used in a different, arresting manner that captivates, holds attention and then, through a stronger, smarter narrative, gives learners what they really need to know.

6.      Repeat: It’s About Learning

Need we say more? Use microlearning to help time-challenged, information-overloaded modern learners learn more and better.

Microlearning won’t solve all your problems, but, used in the right way, it could be an important tool for responding to the challenges of modern working environments and for delivering impactful learning experiences that drive performance.

Do you have a tired employee education program that requires revitalization? Email info@intuition.com to discuss more.