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Using bite-sized learning (or microlearning) as part of your learning strategy

In the never-ending quest to better the performance of our colleagues, learning professionals are constantly seeking out effective practices. One such practice that is enjoying some notoriety lately is the concept of microlearning, or bite-sized learning. The idea is relatively self-explanatory – creating learning events that are focused, small and easily consumed by the learner. Certainly, it fits with the general philosophy that today’s learners are more pressured than ever to use their time wisely and do not have the time to spend hours at a time in the classroom or in an eLearning course. A recent Bersin research bulletin reports that the modern learner has only 1% of their weekly time available for learning (4.8 minutes/day assuming a 40-hour workweek)! As such, learning needs to be delivered quickly and flexibly.

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Brain science warns us to be aware of cognitive load – the amount of mental effort required for working memory. There is a limit to the amount of information that people can effectively learn and retain from a given learning module. Working memory can easily be overloaded, so it is imperative to ensure that the learning “load” is thoughtfully managed. Delivering learning in small, consumable, discrete chunks can go a long way towards successful knowledge retention.

To a certain extent, we all employ microlearning techniques in our everyday lives. Here’s an example: Your bicycle has a flat tire and you don’t know how to change it. You go to YouTube on your smartphone, search for instructional videos, learn how to do it and execute. No classroom necessary, just a short instructional video.

Beware, however – as deploying a microlearning program, like any other, requires forethought. It’s not as simple as taking a 4-hour course and breaking it down into 48 separate 5-minute bite-sized lessons. On the other hand, it should not be that complicated either.

As you look to implement a microlearning strategy, keep some foundational design and delivery guidelines in mind, including:

  • Each bite-sized learning unit should be focused on a specific objective. Don’t try to cram 30 minutes’ worth of content into 5 minutes.
  • Keep it engaging. Just because it’s short doesn’t mean your learners will be inherently interested. 5 boring minutes is still 5 boring minutes.
  • Consider a series of microlearning events leading towards a larger learning goal. One short lesson without greater context will likely not have the same impact.
  • Don’t bombard your learners with a constant series of these bite-sized learning units – remember to manage cognitive load. Schedule them with some time in between each one.

As evidenced by the last guideline above, a microlearning strategy also fits well in conjunction with spaced learning. Example: Roll out a short introductory video on a given topic. The next week, follow that up with a brief eLearning nugget on the same topic. After another week, follow it up with a game or assessment activity. Each activity in this case would cover the same focused subset of content.

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To bring this all in greater focus, let’s look at a common learning and development project – supporting the deployment of a new software solution. A traditional learning program might consist of a half-day instructor-led training session, where you bring people into a classroom to walk through the tasks they will complete in the new system. They learn everything from how to log in, to basic everyday tasks, through to the more advanced tasks. After some time, however, the working memory begins to overload and the participants will not retain their knowledge beyond that point.

Instead, consider breaking it out into bite-sized chunks, delivered over a period of time, using whatever tools you have available in your toolbelt – video, quizzes, games, eLearning bursts, quick-reference guides, etc. Start by sharing a short video introducing the new software solution and what it was designed to do. Follow it up with a game (like one of mLevel’s rapid-fire games) that quizzes learners about this overall purpose. Shortly thereafter, provide a video that walks users through a specific subset of tasks that can be completed in the system. Follow that up with a brief simulation (or an mLevel Path Finder game) that takes the learner through a prescribed path in the system. Reuse and repeat this pattern as needed.

Employing a microlearning strategy makes a lot of sense from multiple perspectives – it can be delivered quickly and efficiently, forcing learning designers to consider only the essential knowledge, while effectively managing learners’ cognitive load. Make sure you’re designing and deploying these bite-sized lessons the right way, and you’ll see the benefits in your learning programs.

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