FOCUS. It’s a lost art these days. Thanks in part to the rise of social media, quick-scroll news, and even swipe-right dating apps, humans are more distracted than ever, with diminishing attention spans. In fact, the average human attention span (the time for which a human can focus on non-changing stimulus) is only eight seconds. That’s one full second less than a goldfish.
Still, humans can multitask fairly well because most interactions are quick, from a cursory glance at a few social media updates to hitting a “like” button.
Don’t get us wrong: A short attention span isn’t necessarily a bad thing. That’s because while our attention span has steadily declined over the years, our brain’s capacity to consume and process information has actually increased.
The average office worker checks their email 30 times every hour, and the average mobile phone user checks their smartphone 150 times per day—in addition to reading tweets, watching videos, and hyper-absorbing media.
So how does this phenomenon relate to learning?
All of this hyperactivity has trained us to look for the fastest path to the answers we need. Instead of reading paragraph after paragraph of text or watching lengthy videos, learners are looking for quick bites of information so they can experience, absorb, apply, then move on to the next task.
They are looking for microlearning, which offers learners what they need, when they need it—quickly. Anything longer, and you could get a goldfish-blank stare—what were you talking about again?
Microlearning is digestible and hyper-relevant bites of information delivered at the exact right moment. It’s an eLearning that enables learners to digest bite-sized pieces of information in a highly engaging and interactive way.
Here’s what microlearning is not: tedious training sessions, monstrous employee manuals, three-day workshops. These outdated teaching tools are quickly becoming replaced by the likes of entertaining micro-content providers such as Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and Google.
But microlearning is nothing new. Traditionally, microlearning has been used primarily as part of a more developed blended learning course, combining face-to-face instruction with microlearning for followup and reinforcement. It’s taken on a variety of monikers, including “reusable learning objects,” “minilearning,” “microcourses,” “nanolearning,” and our favorite, “knowledge nuggets.”
Buzzwords and jargon aside, microlearning has long been a concept in search of the right technology. Our ability to search, tag, link and instantly share information has caught up to microlearning’s simple genius: Allow the learner to get information when they want it, and how they want it. Two real-world examples of our newfound appreciation for microlearning can be seen in services like the popular TED-Ed or the language app Duolingo. Both allow learners to direct their own learning by providing quick bursts of highly-concentrated information.
Even if you think you’ve never used microlearning before, you may be surprised. Here are some of the most common types of microlearning almost everyone uses.
Each month, 85 percent of internet users in the United States consume online videos. Videos are typically fast and easy-to-digest, and pairing images with audio increases subject matter recall. Fast, entertaining and impactful videos can give your subject matter a better chance when compared to written material, and learners can easily share it with their peers, giving it even greater impact.
Whether you use them to stay organized, entertained, or connected, apps essentially create shortcuts for your everyday life. With 204 billion app downloads in 2019, apps are wildly popular and a great way to turn learners’ smartphones and tablets into microlearning machines. And, instead of creating a custom app, instructional designers can push out bits of information through existing apps such as Twitter.
According to a recent study, gamification increases performance rates by almost 35 percent.While gamification is itself an eLearning method, games can also be a microlearning tool. Quick, five-minute review games allow learners to recall things they’ve learned, while leaderboards and challenges keep them engaged for short periods of time.
Infographics deliver information at a glance. By translating data, product information, and even workflows into graphics, learners get the picture quickly.
For better or worse, about 18 percent of Americans rely solely on social media for political news. Because social media reduces news down to a headline or 160 characters, it’s often the fastest way to convey information. Co-opting social media for microlearning gives you access to a powerful tool that most of your learners already use on a daily basis.
For most corporate training departments, offering access to microlearning modules is the next natural step in workforce training. A majority of companies have long enjoyed the convenience and lower cost that elearning brings to staff training and development. While traditional interactive blended learning courses are preferred, many forward-thinking companies have developed a nontraditional “flipped classroom” method in which employees are responsible for learning concepts on their own and then practicing or qualifying that knowledge in organized training sessions.
Putting employees in charge of their own learning and delivering it in short bites has measurable benefits. When we understand how attention span works, we see exactly how microlearning can re-engage learners.
This graph shows that in a typical classroom, student attention wanes after the 18-minute mark and remains low until the end of class. The same research has shown that when breaks are introduced into the training at 15-minute intervals, attention rebounds each time, even over the course of a 60-minute class.
Here’s the thing: When you’re just looking for a snack, it doesn’t make sense for someone to force-feed you a Thanksgiving dinner. Instead of day-long seminars and courses that drag on for hours, mini lessons condense the information into more digestible bites.
Microlearning in short spurts and with mental breaks in between (rest breaks or breaks where students are asked to complete a task or activity) is the answer to waning attention spans.
Still not convinced? Information about internet bounce rates also sheds light on our shrinking attention span. One study found that 32 percent of internet users abandon a slow site after one to five seconds, and just a one-second delay meant 11 percent fewer views overall. In short, learners want to find what they need quickly—and have no problem looking elsewhere if information transmission is taking too long.
Microlearning is uniquely qualified to deliver information to a rising generation of hyper-efficient learners.
Microlearning isn’t just a theory: it’s proven neuroscience. By respecting the neuroscience behind learning, information consumption, and attention span, it’s possible to design an eLearning curriculum that takes various learning preferences into consideration.
The prefrontal cortex—the part of your brain responsible for everything from cognition to decision-making—is flanked by both the hippocampus and the amygdala. Both play integral roles in learning, but they react very specifically in response to microlearning.
The hippocampus is your brain’s message center: it filters through information and makes quick judgements about how important or vital that information actually is. It then sends the vital stuff to long-term memory for storage and later retrieval.
Information is only held within the working memory of the hippocampus for about 20 minutes. If data is not converted to a long-term memory by then, it’s usually discarded by the brain and no longer available for recall or future manipulation. What’s more, the hippocampus is only great at filtering one source of information at a time. Once you add in more sources of information or attempt to multitask, the hippocampus automatically begins collecting only the most vital information from either source, leaving large holes in the data that it collects and stores.
Typical training can not only be both long and boring, taxing the hippocampus’ ability to stay alert, but it practically begs learners to multitask while learning. Scrolling through a phone or checking email while an instructor is talking means the hippocampus leaves gaps in the knowledge that will be stored in long-term memory.
Microlearning does the complete opposite: By breaking learning into smaller pieces, the hippocampus stays alert and focused while receiving information, making it easier for the brain to receive, sort, and store information without losing focus or giving into the temptation to multitask while learning. The result is a condensed, effective version of training that can take half the time but have even more impact than traditional training methods.
For its part, the amygdala is responsible for processing emotion and creating the building blocks for sensory experiences. When working in tandem with the hippocampus, emotional responses processed by the amygdala can actually strengthen neural pathways to improve recall and memory. When a learner has an emotional response to learning, the brain moves the information from working memory to long-term memory for later recall.
Short stories that use humor or animation are a great microlearning tool because they create an emotional response that lights up the brain’s amygdala and tells the hippocampus to pay attention. What’s more, the “short” in short stories can create a positive reaction in learners, who are more than pleased that training doesn’t require hours of time investment. This positive mood can also influence learning and information storage in the brain, further strengthening the link between short bursts of learning and better retention overall.
The span of time between lessons can also help learners convert information to long-term memory. Much like your muscles after a gym session, brains need time to recover in order to strengthen neural pathways and layer old knowledge with new information in your memory.
Studies suggest that a gap of as little as 12 hours (as long as that gap includes a good night’s sleep) can be enough to allow the brain to rest and generate memories. A study published in a 2009 issue of Applied Cognitive Psychology found that participants’ performance improved 90 percent when they spaced out their study sessions, as compared to participants who “crammed” the night before a test. Another study found that when students read texts in short spurts of a few minutes with filler tasks in between, they had better recall a full week later than when compared to students who read entire texts start-to-finish.
Attention, spacing, and even sleep can have a huge impact on the way brains absorb new information and convert it to long term memory. Chopping up information into digestible pieces doesn’t just make learners sit up and pay attention; they actually become more efficient learners in the process.
Prevailing opinion is that microlearning curriculum should be chopped into 10 to 15 minute pieces—max. That doesn’t have to be a hard and fast rule. The actual time limit for microlearning depends on the instructional designer, SME and teacher. Five 15-minute lessons create a larger retention rate than a 75-minute instructional video. In fact, that 15-minute video or short infographic might create an even deeper impact on learners because you capture their full attention, even if it’s just for a short while.
If microlearning is to be visual — think graphics or slides—then the best rule of thumb is to imagine the size of an index card. If you can fit the visual matter onto an index card, it will fit into your microlearning curriculum. Another way to think of it? The size of a smartphone screen. Videos, graphs, social networking and other pictures can be easily shared and viewed via phone, making it a natural tool for mini lessons.
It’s a good idea to have learners answer discussion questions or take a quick quiz in the middle of an eLearning lesson or training. Sending microlearning quizzes, tips or videos straight to learners’ phones or emails can help them retain some of that new knowledge by immediately putting it to work.
Microlearning is also more effective when it’s done often. By making microlearning part of your learners’ everyday routine, it becomes fully integrated into their schedules. The beauty of mini-lessons are that they can be absorbed anytime, anywhere. By asking that learners check a video as part of their lunch break or other down time, you make better use of their time and maximize your results.
Learners love microlearning because it saves time and puts them in charge, letting them choose not only what to learn, but when to learn. After all, a busy professional may only have a few minutes to learn, process and apply new info. Like TED-Ed, Khan Academy also offers topical knowledge on the fly. Learners can click on topics that interest them— all without the hand-holding that traditional eLearning entails.
Consider some of these major benefits that thinking smaller could have for your learners:
More traditional learning and training methods aren’t conducive to constant changing and updating. Funneling your lessons into a more digestible medium not only saves time; it’s easy to update learners for learners can score updates via social media, video and interactive content.
If your organization can’t afford missed work and extra resources allowing learners to attend training, a microlearning strategy makes sense. Microlearning gives students focused training in a small time frame and even encourages learners to check in when they’re away from their desks.
What learner doesn’t have a smartphone handy? The ability to watch a quick video while waiting in a doctor’s office or read a short email while relaxing on the couch means learners are in constant contact with the material they need.
An interactive learning quiz, forum or game allows your learners to try a concept for themselves and put it to work within a shorter timeframe than traditional training.
Allowing a high degree of autonomy in eLearning puts learners in charge. This “path of least assistance” means learners who can independently research and cultivate their own knowledge base. With comprehensive keywords and effective meta tagging, one microlearning lesson can flow seamlessly into another to allow learners to become subject matter experts.
You don’t need a complete training overhaul to start seeing immediate benefits of microlearning. Start to identify areas where shrinking down your eLearning could make a serious difference today. Here are some ideas to get you started:
Brains love microlearning, and for good reason: breaking content down based on relevancy, time constraints, and learner autonomy taps into learners’ neuro pathways. Small nuggets of information may seem inconsequential, especially when compared to content-heavy training strategies, but for the brain, bigger isn’t always better.
In addition to lightening the learning load, microlearning provides quick turn-around: as you surf the web, read reports and check in with sites, you’ll undoubtedly happen upon articles, videos and information that you want to share with your learners via Twitter or other social media.
Microlearning might be the smallest tool in your training arsenal, but it might also be one of the most effective.