The Benefits of Microlearning

The principles of microlearning are now being effectively applied in live in-person and virtual training.
The Benefits of Microlearning

by Mya Corcoran

Have you ever been stuck in an endless lecture? Your mind begins to wander. You check your phone for messages. And drift away to peek at social media. The meeting closes and you realize you don’t recall anything the instructor said.

If you can relate, don’t worry – you’re not alone.

According to a Stanford University study, the average attention falloff in webinars and virtual meetings happens after just 8-10 minutes. When it comes to employee training, professional development, and onboarding, lectures accompanied by PowerPoints are not effective. They don’t match the way employees learn. Instead of fighting against their employees’ attention spans, companies should turn to a research-based method for employee training: microlearning.

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What is Microlearning?

In the words of workplace training expert, Sharon Tipton,  

“Microlearning is short bursts of focused, bite-sized content to help people achieve a specific outcome.” 

Small bite-sized pieces of information prevent learners from being overwhelmed. Microlearning sessions are meant to be brief, but Tipton explains that 

“Microlearning isn’t about time. It’s about short, specific content. If that content ends up being 8 minutes, 12 minutes, 4 minutes, 3 minutes that’s fine…whatever is suited for the content itself.” 

Microlearning often involves some type of interactive element such as a game, quiz, or activity. These interactive elements not only ensure learners stay engaged for the entire session, but also reinforce what they learned, extending message retention. The bonus is that facilitators see results data immediately, that indicating whether their learning goals have been met.

Students participating in a game during a history lesson.
A group of university students participating in an online assessment.
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The Science of Attention

Microlearning is effective in keeping participants engaged because it takes into consideration the way our brains function. Scientific American explains when you are focused and engaged in mental activity, your brain produces beta waves. However, when your attention starts to dwindle, the brain switches from producing beta to alpha waves, an indication that your brain is in an idle, trance-like state, rather than a thoughtful state with active cognition, the state necessary for long term message retention.

Microlearning hacks the brain by increasing beta waves, the natural result of physical activity. Even something as simple as a button click lifts beta waves and keeps users in an attentive state. 

A graph of differing brain waves.
Microlearning increases beta waves.
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Benefits of Microlearning

Through interactive and succinct lessons, microlearning keeps learners engaged for hours instead of minutes. Randy Tinfow, CEO of REACHUM, has used microlearning for almost 20 years throughout his professional career and credits the method as a “game changer” when it comes to keeping audiences engaged.

Tinfow explained how he used microlearning principles to increase engagement in a project he did for the United States Golf Association. The USGA posted twelve videos to YouTube to explain the Rules of Golf. Despite each video being 3-4 minutes long, the average view time was only 38 seconds. Although the videos were of exceptional quality and featured the stars of golf, people exited the videos in less than a minute.

To keep people engaged, Tinfow applied the principles of microlearning to make the videos more interactive and involving.  In the first minute of each video a scenario was shown, with the audience offered for multiple choices to a rules interpretation. Rather than getting an immediate right or wrong response, viewers were encouraged to watch the rest of the video to discover the answer. At the end of the video the first question was reprised, followed by two more quizzes. The questions provided interactivity that got viewers participating. According to Tinfow, 

“Engagement increased ten times, to more than eight minutes, because the fun challenges of the first module encouraged users to keep going. All the metrics improve when users become actively involved in quick bursts of gamified learning.” 

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Just-in-Time Training

Microlearning is especially useful when it comes to just-in-time training, a type of learning that involves teaching someone something they will put into practice immediately. Microlearning is compatible with just-in-time training because it allows learners to get access to the information they need on demand. Tipton, who often works with clients in sales, notes “sales teams in particular don’t have time to go and sit in front of a computer and take a course,” and instead, need a way to get crucial information in a format that allows them “to watch and go.” Microlearning allows the necessary content to be absorbed quickly, so workers can immediately put what they have learned into action.

A professor provides an alternative to lecture learning during his science class.
A teacher uses just-in-time training to teach his students science.
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Keep Up to Date with Best Practices

Microlearning lessons are a great way to keep employees up to date on best practices or the newest information in their field. Michael Corcoran, math and science supervisor for Wilkes-Barre Area School District, says he has used microlearning in the past to coach teachers on using best practices when instructing students. The microlearning sessions were held monthly and lasted for ten minutes in the morning before students arrived at school.

In these microlearning sessions, Corcoran instructed teachers on using the 5E’s (engage, explore, explain, extend, evaluate) for writing lesson plans, a research-based model to help teachers focus on student learning and to have students more actively engaged in the lesson. Across five sessions, he focused on one component of the 5E model each session. He also presented discrepant events, a surprising outcome to a science demonstration, that teachers could immediately go back to their classroom to use.

Professors discussing a lesson plan.

Corcoran encouraged participation and interaction from teachers by asking them to share hands-on activities that they had recently done in their own classrooms.

Corcoran described his sessions as “quick hitting” and noted that teachers “didn’t have time to get off task or be bored.”

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Greater Learner Satisfaction

Corcoran noted that his microlearning sessions were not only effective, but also that teachers appreciated their brevity. Many teachers noted that they enjoyed the short and to-the-point meetings over the hours-long professional development sessions that they have experienced in the past.

Corcoran notes, 

“Unless you’re a great storyteller or you can sing and dance, it’s hard to keep people’s attention for a long time.” 

His meetings were just the right amount of time to keep teachers interested and get his points across. He noted that it was also easier for him as a presenter to prepare for several shorter meetings than a longer meeting.

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Embracing Technology

Some of microlearning’s success can be attributed to the fact that it does not shy away, but rather embraces technology. Tinfow explained that one of the biggest issues educators relate to him is their students being distracted by technology. In an in-person classroom, teachers report that only 20-25 percent of students are paying attention.

A student scans a QR code to enter an online lesson.
Student view of REACHUM
(post QR code scan)

Rather than allowing cell phones to further distract students in class, teachers have incorporated cell phone use into their lessons using microlearning. Teachers project a QR code on the screen in the front of the room, and all students need to do is scan that code and then the content is on their phone.

Tinfow explains, 

“We’re co-opting that space that has been occupied by social media and notifications, and teachers love it. They’re sustaining classes for three hours with 80 to 85% attention instead of 20 to 25% attention. It’s a game changer.”

Additionally, Tipton points out how our rapidly developing technology lends itself to being used for microlearning. Tipton contends, “think about the invention of augmented reality, virtual reality, things that are happening in AI – all of those things are very well-suited to microlearning and delivering microlearning into the workflow.”

Tipton asserts that advances in technology will not only contribute to the continuation of microlearning in the future, but will also lead to evolutions in the learning method. Tipton states, “I think the world of microlearning is going to continue to roll forward, but also it’s going to expand to look like things I can’t even imagine right now.”

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Increased Retention

According to a study done by the National Institute of Health, people forget over 50 percent of what they learned just 20 minutes after the lesson ends due to a phenomenon called the “forgetting curve.” Microlearning has been proven to be an effective way of combating this loss of information.

Microlearning aids in the process of converting information from short to long-term memory by having individuals take in one piece of information at a time. Additionally, breaks between bursts of learning help individuals metabolize what they have learned. Rather than being expected to dedicate every detail of an hour-long lecture to memory, microlearning only requires you to focus on one small burst of information at a time leading to higher retention rates.

A person placing a building block at the top of a block pyramid.
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Live Microlearning

Microlearning has long been used as an on-demand, asynchronous learning modality. It’s attraction is that learners can watch at their own pace to fit their busy schedule.

The trend is towards live, synchronous microlearning.  To explain the value of live microlearning, Tinfow says, 

“Live training, whether in-person or remote, training, provides teachers with real-time data indicating exactly how much of the message has gotten through. They can identify students that are having an issue or not getting the message and fix it immediately. By the end of the class, everybody is in-sync, and up-to-speed.”

Thus, live microlearning lends itself to higher engagement than asynchronous methods. Tinfow points out, 

“Who wants to watch a 2 hour video of a talking head?” 

A leaderboard inside of the REACHUM mobile version.

Additionally, live microlearning allows for hands-on learning. Tipton notes, 

“You could create job aids or handouts you can use in a live setting that people can take away and make use of later…or you could even have them create their own microlearning element.” 

Tipton suggested ending a session by having class members work in groups to create an infographic about the most important things they have learned.

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Reduced Time and Cost

According to the Health and Safety Institute, microlearning sessions take 300 percent less time to create and cost 50 percent less than traditional learning methods. Since microlearning requires little time and resources, it is extremely cost-effective. Additionally, it will not take employees away from their work for long periods of time.

Save your time with REACHUM
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The Future of Microlearning

Technological advances and increases in workplace turnover are only driving the need for microlearning in the future. Instead of having employees spend hours in meetings to keep up with the latest developments in their field or having new employees spend countless minutes in onboarding sessions, microlearning allows essential learning to get done in minutes. According to Tinfow, 

“The need for training is increasing rather than reducing. If people want effective training and a robust return on their training dollars, live microlearning is the way to go.”

Tipton notes that in our current era, companies must: 

“Juggle people who are working from home, who are working out in the field, and working in the office”

and argues 

“L&D would be remiss if we stayed in our very comfortable silo of eLearning, virtual learning, or live learning.” 

Rather than continuing to rely on traditional learning methods, companies need to adapt to methods that are better suited to our fast paced modern world.

With all its benefits, microlearning has become a staple of corporate training. Interminably long lectures will hopefully become a relic of the past.