Microlearning and Spaced Practice

Microlearning and Spaced Practice
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We all know that peanut butter goes well with chocolate, but did you also know that microlearning goes well with spaced practice--and can lead to better comprehension, retention, and job transfer?

Well if not, then you're going to find this article interesting, because we're going to explain (1) what microlearning is, (2) what spaced practice is, and (3) how to use microlearning within a spaced practice strategy to improve the outcomes of your training program at work.

Once you're done reading this article, you may also want to listen to our Microlearning for Safety Training webinar and download our 3 Uses for Microlearning infographic.

First Things First: What Is Microlearning?

There's nothing too complicated about this one. At its root, microlearning is a short learning activity. There's no universal definition of how "short" a microlearning activity has to be in order to qualify as microlearning. Perhaps the best rule of the thumb is it should be as short as absolutely possible. Frequently, microlearning ranges from 30 seconds to 5 minutes or so.

Many times, a microlearning activity is designed to help the learner satisfy one learning objective or performance objective. You can probably see how if you stick to just one learning or performance objective per microlearning activity, and include only the bare minimum of what's necessary for that objective, you'll end up with a pretty short learning activity.

A learning designer can create microlearning activities in any delivery method--written, infographic, video, elearning course, face-to-face instruction, and so on. People often talk about microlearning in the context of a learning activity delivered through a mobile device, but that's definitely not the only delivery method you can use for microlearning.

Finally, you can use microlearning activities for a number of purposes within a larger training program. For example, there's no reason why you can't include a microlearning activity as one activity that initially delivers training content within a standard training program--one activity within new employee onboarding.

Read more about this in our What Is Microlearning? and Using Microlearning at Work for Better Performance articles.

Next Things Next: What Is Spaced Practice?

OK, so now let's talk about spaced practice, which is also sometimes called spaced learning or the spacing effect, and which isn't entirely unrelated to what you might think of as refresher training.

Here's how the learning researcher Dr. Will Thalheimer explains what the "space effect" is in his excellent Spacing Learning Over Time whitepaper (please be sure to download and read the whole thing and make use of his findings/recommendations):

When we talk about the spacing effect, we are talking about spacing repetitions of learning points over time. The spacing effect occurs when we present learners with a concept to learn, wait some amount of time, and then present the same concept again. Spacing can involve a few repetitions or many repetitions.

So at first glance, that's not too complicated, right?

But Thalheimer adds a little additional nuance to the mix a little later in his evidence-based white paper:

...the spacing effect...is the finding that spaced repetitions produce more learning—better long-term retention—than repetitions that are not spaced. It is also the finding that longer spacings tend to produce more long-term retention than shorter spacings (up to a point where even longer spacings are sometimes counterproductive).

So it's ideal to space the learnings out SOME but not too much--you've got to go for that "spacing sweet spot."

Here are some additional tips on how to use spaced practice from Thalheimer's research:

Repetitions within a learning event and between learning events: Thalheimer's research shows that there's a spaced learning benefit both from repetitions of one training topic during a single session (spaced out a little over time and with other content in between) and also from repetitions of the learning between a learning events (like a week later, for example).

How MANY repetitions? According to Thalheimer, "One critical point to consider is that spacing may not produce an effect unless more than one or two or three repetitions are used. This is especially critical when difficult, lengthy, or technical learning materials are used. Let’s face it. When there is a lot to learn, or when the learning material is complex, learners will need more repetitions. When learning events are spaced out, the difficulty of learning complex or lengthy materials may be compounded, and so, the advantages of spacing may only become evident when enough repetitions are used to enable a basic threshold of learning. "

How long should the spaces be? According to Thalheimer, "It appears from the research that the ideal spacing interval should be roughly equal to the retention interval—the time between the last learning opportunity and the time when the information is needed on the job. So for example, if you know your learners will have to remember information for two weeks before needing to apply that information on the job, then the ideal time between repetitions should be two weeks."

Using increasingly longer intervals: Thalheimer suggests using increasingly longer spacing intervals over time (whether the spacings occur within one training activity or between multiple training activities).

To sum that up, a few takeaways from Thalheimer's research on spaced practice are that spaced practice creates better long-term remembering than "massed practice," that spacing can happen during a single learning activity as well as throughout time in multiple learning activities, that the learner benefits if the spacing interval is long enough that the learner has actually begun to forget the material, and that there are advantages to having the initial training take place very shortly before the worker is expected to apply the training on the job. Another point Thalheimer makes in his report is that the spacing effect provides a good use for elearning courses, since they're easier to assign to workers over time.

For more on spaced practice, we encourage you to read Dr. Thalheimer's white paper. Additionally, check out our interview with Dr. Thalheimer on spaced practice, our article on the training forgetting curve, and our article on spaced practice to combat the forgetting curve.

How to Use Microlearning for Spaced Practice

As we noted above, Thalheimer's white paper suggests that elearning courses can be very helpful in implementing a spaced learning strategy over time. That's because it's easier to get elearning courses out to workers and even to use an LMS to schedule them on those desired intervals.

That means that microlearning elearning courses can play that role too, and in many cases, their shorter length make them ideal for spaced practice. Workers can get the quick spaced learning benefit without sitting through a longer classroom session or even elearning course.

Conclusion: Spacing Creates Learning Benefits and Microlearning Can Help

We hope you enjoyed this introduction to spaced learning and how you can use microlearning as part of your spaced learning strategy.

Please download our 3 Uses of Microlearning Infographic below (yep, spaced learning is one of the recommended uses) and keep your eyes peeled for more articles from us on spaced learning and microlearning.

Jeff Dalto, Senior Learning & Performance Improvement Manager
Jeff is a learning designer and performance improvement specialist with more than 20 years in learning and development, 15+ of which have been spent working in manufacturing, industrial, and architecture, engineering & construction training. Jeff has worked side-by-side with more than 50 companies as they implemented online training. Jeff is an advocate for using evidence-based training practices and is currently completing a Masters degree in Organizational Performance and Workplace Learning from Boise State University. He writes the Vector Solutions | Convergence Training blog and invites you to connect with him on LinkedIn.

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