Microlearning: what it is and how to make it work for you

Microlearning is not “slicing up” a large complex topic, it’s about identifying learning opportunities throughout the workday that will help an employee do their job better.

Can you absorb information better if it is delivered in three-to-five minute bites online? Welcome to microlearning.

Your team is undertaking two days’ training. It’s an engaging topic and you diligently take notes. You finish the session excited to apply the new knowledge to your work. 

Back in the office, your inbox is overflowing, you have back-to-back meetings and must somehow fit five days’ work into three. Your training notes sit unread in a file on your desktop. A couple of weeks later, you remember little of what was covered.

Now imagine that the same information is delivered via an app you can use anywhere: on the bus, or while waiting for your morning coffee. You watch a short video, take in more detailed information via an infographic and create a to-do list to reinforce the lesson. 

“It’s easily consumed,” says Arun Pradhan, Learn2LearnApp.com founder and senior learning and performance consultant at DeakinCo, part of Deakin University. 

This model of learning – known as microlearning – forms the basis of the app developed by Pradhan. Learn2Learn features courses in topics like innovation and how to learn from failure. 

“I could have created a course that went for a whole day,” Pradhan says. Instead, he developed a series of “learning bites” that users can consume in five minutes or less. “It’s designed to have a quick impact, pushing for people to take action at the end of each learning bite.” 

What is microlearning? 

Microlearning is the delivery of information in small, bite-sized chunks. Our jam-packed workdays allow little time for additional training, but thanks to the ubiquity of mobile devices, microlearning can occur anywhere – even in a five-minute gap between meetings. “It’s learning that is as small as possible to get the job done,” Pradhan says. 

Microlearning is not “slicing up” a large or complex topic and simply “dishing it out,” he emphasises. It’s about identifying learning opportunities throughout the workday that will help an employee do their job better. 

In a complex world, writes social learning expert Harold Jarche, the integration of learning and work is a necessity – a feature of microlearning. You don’t need to take time away from work to learn in a “training bubble,” says Pradhan. “You can remain in your workflow.” 

As well as videos and infographics, learning materials can take the form of checklists, interactive modules, questionnaires, practice exercises, articles and blog posts. “It could be anything that is a learning moment that is happening in and around your workflow,” he says.

Participation is voluntary and on demand. It’s crucial that microlearning resources are available at the point of need – “when you’re most engaged,” Pradhan maintains. “Imagine if they were telling you what to do in a plane emergency as the engine was failing. You’d actually pay attention, rather than snoring away.” 

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It also has a sharp focus. Microlearning is a strategy that works best when it is tied to a clearly defined, measurable business goal. It’s about delivering “need-to-know” information, not information that’s “nice-to-know” – a distinction made by microlearning expert JD Dillon, principal learning strategist at Axonify, a Canadian-based software developer and learning specialist firm. 

Dillon offers an example in an article published on his business’s blog: “Rather than create a generic course called ‘Safety in the Workplace’, you could provide a brief video, job aid and reinforcement questions focused on an immediate safety concern, such as how to lift heavy objects without getting hurt.” 

A drawcard for employers is its cost-effectiveness. “Rather than getting people to do a whole training course over a weekend, you might have a team who can all engage in learning in the space of a few months at their own pace,” says futurist Michael McQueen, author of How to Prepare Now for What’s Next

Microlearning is also measurable. “If you’re running a course for a whole lot of staff in an organisation, you can measure who has watched the videos,” McQueen says. “There are also metrics along the way to make sure the learning is embedded, such as questionnaires and other diagnostic tools.” 

There are drawbacks, however. 

Microlearning’s short bursts may exacerbate our decreasing attention spans, while self-directed models of learning like microlearning can entrench individuality; the idea that, “I only want to learn what I think is important right now in the way that suits me,” McQueen explains. Conforming to structured learning, he argues, can help us step outside our comfort zones and engage with content we are not naturally drawn to, but which is not unimportant to learn. 

The science of microlearning 

Microlearning’s proponents claim the technique helps us to retain information. Repeated practice over time, known as spaced repetition, combined with retrieval practice – strengthening memory by recalling information – and confidence-based assessment help embed information into the long-term memory. 

“If you’ve got three hours to remember something, you’re much better off splitting it into smaller sessions over a few weeks,” Pradhan says. “If you try to learn it in a large chunk, it’s less effective than having spaced repetition. 

“All of us at some point in our youth did an all-nighter to study for an exam, and you may have passed the exam, but the next week you couldn’t remember anything about it.” 

Microlearning may sound like a buzzword, but it is already a common part of the learning landscape. “Most companies are now using it in some contexts,” Pradhan says. Rather than roll out a large e-learning program, a company will design a blended program that involves some microlearning, often curated content like a TED Talk or article. 

It’s rare today, he says, for organisations to organise a multi-day workshop. “If you go there just to hear someone speak at you, it’s pointless.”

Read next: 7 tips to upskill your workplace

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