Microlearning: how to make learning more effective for the modern busy employee

Published by Kelly Wright on

microlearning image representation with a hand selecting a piece from a pie chart

Microlearning: how to make learning more effective for the modern busy employee

Have you got five minutes?

In the interest of staying on topic, I’m going to try and keep this brief. So, let’s first define what we mean by microlearning to a) get us on the same page and b) stop me falling down a weird, irrelevant rabbit hole.

Off we go(ogle)…

Most search results seem to agree with elearningindustry.com who describe microlearning as “short bursts of content for learners to study at their convenience. Content can take many forms, from text to full-blown interactive multimedia, but it should always be short.”

As I delve further into “how short is micro?”, I recall a project where I researched Gen Z preferences as consumers of learning, which highlighted a desire for: bite-sized morsels of content ranging from two to ten minutes, videos under 60 seconds, and articles of less than 1000 words; basically, the smaller the better, it seems.

microlearning image representation with a hand selecting a piece from a pie chart

Does size really matter?

As the amount of data we receive rises our ability to digest it falls, so it’s inevitable that we seek out learning that matches the scale and pace of every other aspect of modern life.

To quote Herbert A Simon, “What information consumes is rather obvious: it consumes the attention of its recipients. Hence a wealth of information creates a poverty of attention and a need to allocate that attention efficiently among the overabundance of information sources that might consume it.”

But we can’t lay all the blame on big data or emerging technology. As this HBR article points out, “human brains are wired to seek completion and the pleasure it brings — a tendency termed “completion bias.”

We are rewarded for completing even a small task with a hit of dopamine. This release of feel-good neurotransmitters improves attention, memory, and motivation, creating a positive cycle that motivates us to work harder going forward.

So, why don’t we just build mini goals into longer learning experiences? Nice try, but according to the research, we are more likely to work through a series of micro learnings than revisit a larger experience, as we find it hard to forget incomplete tasks and, as a result, will struggle to give full attention to other activities. Completing small individual tasks frees up the cognitive resources we need to tackle other activities.

Some apps, such as Noom, have recognised this and actively lock content after just a few minutes of reading per day, rewarding you for hitting your daily target.

Employers can save time and money by empowering their employees to manage their development with short bursts of microlearning around their work schedules and at the point of need.


How low can you go?

I recall a recent news article about the Microscopic Handbag. Smaller than a grain of salt, the bag made by New York-based art collective MSCHF, sold at auction for over $60,000.  

MSCHF said of their creation: “As a once-functional object like a handbag becomes smaller and smaller its object status becomes steadily more abstracted until it is purely a brand signifier. Previous small handbags have still required a hand to carry them – they become dysfunctional, inconveniences to their ‘wearer’. Microscopic Handbag takes this to its full logical conclusion. A practical object is boiled down into jewellery, all its putative function evaporated; for luxury objects, useability is the angels’ share.”

It sounds like the only thing that Microscopic Handbag and microlearning have in common is their size. Workplace learning is not a luxury item. It cannot shrink so small that it loses its function, purpose or usability. Whilst I’m sure the new owner of Microscopic Handbag is not expecting it to hold their keys, phone and wallet, learners have much higher expectations of microlearning. It needs to work hard and deliver fast.

abstract image of digital learning superimposed onto a laptop

What is micro good for?

As microlearning apps like Blinkist, Shortform and Headway emerge, providing very short summaries of books, I wonder – can you micro all learning?

These apps focus on non-fiction self-development content, promoting fun personal growth and include great personalisation features like audio options, flash cards, spaced repetition and daily insights and challenges. They assure subscribers that each publication has been expertly reviewed to extract key concepts into short summaries. But reviews vary, raising the question: Do they really deliver the golden nuggets that impact long-lasting behavioural change, or do they give you just enough to hold your own in a dinner party chat?

As with their editors, this is where the skill of the Learning Designer lies, to:

  • Fully understand the desired behavioural outcomes
  • Sift, sort and absorb source material
  • Identify the key concepts and actions that will enable behavioural change
  • Distil those key concepts into engaging, memorable content
  • Select the best methods for slick, fun, smart delivery

Generally, it’s acknowledged that microlearning focuses on essential knowledge. It’s great for providing need-to-know actions to remember when it matters, but it’s not the place for deep dives. If you need to fully immerse yourself in a complex scenario, or learn every detailed step of a process, a single microlearning may not be the way – although a series of microlearnings could be a solution.

“Though she be but little, she is fierce.”

(Helena about Hermia in Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream).

In a world dominated by TikTok videos, Instagram reels, YouTube shorts and Snapchat Spotlight, the power of video as a microlearning source is immense – even Netflix toyed with the idea of a short-form video service.

With their power to tell stories, convey concepts and processes, provoke thought and enable calls to action, we choose short-form video as the solution for many of our clients and have delivered it in many different styles.  

Final thought: It’s been challenging to keep this article short. There is a wealth of research around this topic that just isn’t possible to cover in a blog. However, our team of designers, writers and developers work closely with our in-house team of behavioural science researchers and consultants to keep up to date with the latest research and translate this into the most effective strategies for our clients.

If you are interested in exploring how microlearning could support your employees or how behavioural science might apply to some of your goals within your organisation, get in touch with one of our team for a no pressure chat. We love talking about everything related to behaviour!

Categories: Best Practice