Why Microlearning Works

Microlearning is the process of building successful behaviors in short, focused segments. It’s an approach to learning that uses small moments of real-time behavior adjustment to create continuing performance improvement in individuals and organizations.

Sound complicated? It’s not.

Actually, microlearning is a method that tries to make everything about learning as accessible as possible. Truly getting better at something is hard enough. Microlearning is how it gets easier.

Weapons of mass instruction

Traditional workplace training needs an overhaul. Employees are sick of sitting in classrooms and reading the new hire handbook out loud. They’re tired of using clunky technology to do mandatory training assignments. And they never want to see another PowerPoint lecture. Worse yet, all this traditional training doesn’t work. Companies are paying more money than ever for training but employees still forget the vast majority of what they learn.

Some estimates say 80% of a long-form training session is forgotten in 30 days.

It’s not hard to see where traditional training goes wrong. Over a century of research has yielded pretty concrete insights into how humans learn best, and all of them are violated by just throwing content at learners and hoping they hang on to whatever they can.

Traditional training is:

  • Cognitively oppressive. Long-form training sessions give people too much information at once. There’s a limit to how much a brain can process in one sitting. It’s called “working memory,” and overloading it with too much new info is like pointing a garden hose into a wine glass.
  • Out of context. Most training comes at the wrong time for learners. Long-form sessions dump an avalanche of information onto them, even though it’s rarely relevant to what they’re working on at the moment. By the time they try to transfer the skill in a performance context, the training material doesn’t have an impact.
  • Information-based content. Traditional training focuses on transferring information instead of building skills. Being able to perform a new skill requires practice, failure, feedback; it requires the learner to take action. Unfortunately, most traditional training doesn’t go beyond presenting material to passive listeners.

Thanks to these three failings, traditional training has a minimal impact on the way employees actually do their work. And no one is to blame but the learning design itself. Not the learner, not the L&D department, not the company paying for it.

What if there was a better way?

So, what if a learning approach flipped each of these defects on its head?

Instead of overloading the learner, what if we gave them a little bit of information at a time? Real improvement takes place in increments. What if learning followed the same schedule? People would learn in small steps that would accumulate into more complex skills, just like how sentences accumulate into stories. The short, focused learning moments would be bite-sized and digestible, with a small cognitive load that could free the learner’s brain to concentrate on the real work of practicing new skills—not cramming in a boring lecture.

There’s nowhere you can’t get in a series of small steps.

Instead of delivering information far away from its performance context, what if we delivered learning the moment it could be applied? People could learn at the point of need, when they have a chance to use the lesson. No more stockpiling information that’ll only be forgotten; bite-size learning resources would help people practice and perform behaviors right away. People would end up training on the job rather than taking time off for lectures they won’t remember.

A personal trainer doesn’t give you a book on exercise. They guide you through a series of small moments while you’re exercising, helping you reach big fitness goals.

Instead of forcing people to sit through training, what if we actually gave them experiences? Instead of structuring courses around the information people need to know, you could structure learning programs around real milestones and then surround each of the milestones with the resources the employee needs to accomplish it. They wouldn’t just be preparing to do things differently. They’d actually be performing better.

Effective learning helps you practice new behaviors, not just hear about them.

Microlearning’s power to transform

If you put these three fixes together, you end up with an approach built on learning moments that are digestible, point-of-need, and participatory. That’s microlearning in a nutshell.

Delivering learning this way has a number of benefits. For one, people love short content. Attention spans are short and employees are busy—that’s why they can only devote 1% of their day to training. But though they may not be able to sit through long content, everybody has time for a tiny learning intervention that genuinely helps them perform better. That’s why microlearning drives higher learning engagement.

Everything is better bite-sized.

Moreover, each completed microlearning moment is a small win that, when strung together with others, motivates the learner to keep learning. This principle of “self-efficacy” is critical to helping people stick with the hard work of performance improvement. If they believe they’re able to rise to a new challenge, they’re more likely to actually do so. Learning delivers that confidence.

Tons of other ancillary benefits also follow from a micro approach. For example:

  1. Bite-size units are easy to consume in pretty much any setting, on any device
  2. Microlearning content is easy, affordable, and fast for the admin to create and refresh
  3. Effective learning techniques like spaced repetition and interleaving become available

But the biggest benefit of microlearning is that by putting moments of behavior change inside the workflow, learning can actually transform behavior. This has always been L&D’s highest aspiration—to tangibly improve employee performance through learning people love. Now it’s possible.

Microlearning is more than a salve on the defects of traditional training. It puts the key to employee performance and engagement into the hands of L&D. Microlearning is more than the most effective way to deliver training content in the 21st century. It’s an era-defining innovation that empowers learning professionals to make good employees better, every day.

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