Is Microlearning a Myth?

Thursday, June 18, 2015

Many L&D professionals are on a quest for the training Holy Grail: micro-learning. They want to know how to help people acquire knowledge in five minutes or less—generous L&D folks might say 15 minutes or less. Several factors are fueling this high interest in micro-learning. 

Extremely Limited Time Constraints. Increasingly, organizations need employees to learn things faster. ATD’s State of the Industry reports for the past several years reveal that most employees receive a small amount of formal training per year. The 2014 report says that the average learning hours per year is 31.5 (or just under four work days per year). The Bersin and Associates research bulletin, “Meet the Modern Learner: Engaging the Overwhelmed, Distracted, and Impatient Employee,” concurs with these findings. Bersin reports that today’s modern learner only has 1 percent of their time available each week to devote to professional development and learning, which translates to 4.8 minutes per day, if we assume a 40-hour workweek. 

Successful Launch of MOOCs. Over the last two years, MOOCs (massive open online courses) from the likes of Coursera and Udemy, plus numerous other universities, have jumped into the fray of offering free college-level courses. These courses are organized into bite-sized lectures that are typically 7 to 12 minutes in length, coupled with homework assignments and discussion forums. Some categorize this sort of learning as micro-learning. More importantly, they are claiming major success rates, because courses tend to have thousands of students enroll. 

Deepening Awareness of Brain Science. The L&D community has a growing interest in brain science and research on memory, specifically related to spacing and repetition. Research shows long-term memory of knowledge significantly increases when 1) learning and study sessions are spaced over time, and 2) content is repeated over time (lots of repetitions rather than a one-time delivery). And L&D is not alone: The New York Times has featured articles on this topic; UCLA’s Learning and Forgetting Lab has amassed a great deal of research on what drives remembering and forgetting; and neuroscientist John Medina’s book, Brain Rules, devotes entire chapters to it. 

Growing Prevalence of Mobile Devices. No one can question the ubiquity of mobile devices, specifically smartphones, in the workplace. Entire conferences are devoted to the idea of mobile learning, and a myriad of books and articles have been written on how to design it. It seems like an obvious answer to use mobile phones to deliver learning content. 

When to Use—and Not Use—Micro-Learning

Clearly, these factors point to the need for a shift to micro-learning. Right? If so, why am I waving a yellow caution flag on the micro-learning stampede? Because I fear that people will dictate micro-learning without regard for the actual learning need. In other words, many of your internal or external customers may not distinguish between situations where micro-learning is an optimal solution and situations where it’s an awful solution. 

There’s no question that micro-learning components, such as video vignettes, a quick Q&A review, or a simple game, can offer effective learning preparation or reinforcement. However, here are four situations where you should explore much more robust learning solutions. 

  • You need to build DEPTH of knowledge or skill rather than raise awareness levels. If you want people to be experts at something, they need time to build expertise. To do so, they need relevant practice and feedback. For example, consider a company that is making the shift to agile teams/methodology. It needs to build depth of knowledge via a variety of learning methodologies, including formal workshops, informal reading, and on-the-job experiences. Micro-learning can reinforce key concepts in this scenario, but it cannot help employees learn agile.


  • You need to move people from novice to fluency on a particular topic or skill set in a relatively short period of time. For instance, deep industry or product knowledge is difficult to learn in five minutes. People build depth and fluency over time, with repeated practice and multiple exposures. Trying to build fluency in 5-minute sessions is a recipe for a very long learning curve. (Imagine trying to learn instructional design in 5 minutes.)

  • Long-term retention needs. Micro-learning is helpful for repetition, but it should not be implemented as a “one-and-done” solution for teaching people something they need to retain long-term.

  • Your content is not intended for people to remember, but for use more as performance support. There is a lot of information that employees may simply need to look up when they need it. For example, you may have hundreds of product modules, and sales reps will never be able to memorize all the specifications associated with each model. Instead, they need a resource that lets them quickly look up info. In this scenario consider creating a Google-esque type of search tool rather than one-off micro-learning modules. You can house all those micro-modules within your Google-esque environment. 

    Here are a few factors to consider as you decide whether and how to use micro-learning. 

  • People need relevant practice—and feedback on performance—to build skills and apply knowledge to their work. Will your micro-learning solution offer this relevant practice and feedback or is it just a “tell” or an example?

  • People cannot multi-task. It is an illusion to think we can learn—and do other work tasks—at the same time. Don’t assume a micro-lesson eliminates this multi-tasking and lack of attention to your learning solution. With no discussion of what’s being learned, people may learn nothing even from a small, quick lesson.

  • Reading something or even following the steps listed in a micro-lesson is not the same thing as “learning.” Are you really wanting people to build long-term retention of information or just wanting them to locate information when they need it? Design your solution accordingly. 

New brain science and learning research tells us people learn AND remember better when learning is spaced over time and key skills and content are repeated multiple times. That does not necessarily translate into shifting everything into learning modules of 5 minutes per day. It does mean re-structuring learning solutions into smaller components with frequent practice and reinforcement. It also could mean coupling extended on-the-job experiences, such as managing your first real project, with appropriate micro-lessons or stories and discussions with a mentor or experienced colleague.

About the Author

Sharon Boller is president and chief product officer of Bottom-Line Performance, Inc. (BLP), a learning solutions firm she founded in 1995. Sharon has grown BLP from a single-woman sole proprietorship to a $3M+ company with 30 team members. Under Sharon’s direction, BLP created the Knowledge Guru™ learning game platform. Knowledge Guru is the recipient of numerous industry awards, including the coveted Brandon Hall Gold award for best innovation in gaming and technology (2014). BLP has also produced a wide array of other award-winning learning solutions. They earned Brandon Hall awards for best advance in sales training, best use of games and simulations for learning in 2014. They've earned numerous Horizon Awards as well. 

Sharon frequently speaks on game-based learning and learning design topics at the local and international level for eLearning Guild, ATD, CLO, Training Magazine, and other industry groups. She is also the author of numerous articles on game-based learning, learning science, and instructional design, as well as a book featuring team building simulations and games, Team Training. She also has an authoring credit for one of the chapter’s in Dr. Karl Kapp’s book, The Gamification of Learning and Instruction Field Book.

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