Using Microlearning at Work for Better Job Performance

Using Microlearning at Work for Better Job Performance

If you’re involved in training or L&D, chances are good you’ve at least heard of microlearning. In fact, you may already be using it as part of the training program at your organization. On the other hand, maybe you’re still out there, curiously scratching your head and wondering what this is all about and how you can use it to improve performance at work. Or maybe you’re in a third camp and haven’t yet heard of microlearning.

No matter where you fall in the “knowledge and use of microlearning” spectrum, we hope this article will help you get a firmer understanding of what microlearning is and a few ways you can use it at your organization. We’ve also included a cool downloadable microlearning infographic for you and a book recommendation for learning more about microlearning. 

First Things First: What Is Microlearning?

There’s probably no single shared definition for microlearning used by L&D practitioners all over the globe. But here's how the Association for Talent Development defines microlearning:

Microlearning enhances learning and performance in the most efficient and effective manner possible through short pieces of content. Assets can usually be accessed on-demand when the learner needs them.

So the basic idea is that it’s a short learning activity. That’s it.

How short? Again, there’s no single right answer to that, and it depends on the training need. But a great partial answer to that is microlearning should be just as long as necessary and no longer. 

So that raises the question, and gets me to the second part that I like to add to a definition: what does that mean, that microlearning is “just as long as necessary?” I like to think of microlearning activities as being designed to teach a single learning objective. So a microlearning course should be long enough to help the learner satisfy the learning objective, yet no longer. 

So Is Microlearning a New Thing?

No, microlearning’s not new. We’ve delivered training and learning experiences in short chunks, nuggets, or bits for a long time.

However, it probably is true that people are talking about microlearning more these days. In fact, I just did a quick Google Trends search for “microlearning” (just click that link to see) and there’s a definite jump starting around 2014 and continuing to now. 

So why the sudden recent interest? Probably a few reasons. First, we got broadband internet around 2000 and many of us are carrying around mobile phones, so those are probably big contributors. Second, there’s at least a theory and widespread belief (and it seems true to me from my own lived experience) that we’re all busier at work these days, we’re all getting pulled in twelve different directions at once, and we’re all bombarded with lots of information all the time. So that makes a short little bite-sized learning activity pretty contextually useful now, doesn’t it? 

Microlearning and Adult Learning Principles 

Well then, what do our adult learning principles (thanks, Malcolm Knowles!) tell us that might be relevant to the issue of microlearning. 

One of the adult learning principles is that adult learners like to be self-directed. Offering learning activities in small bits that fit better into worker’s busy schedules helps serve that self direction. Likewise, making some of that microlearning available through computers or mobile devices does the same, as it breaks the “leash” of the classroom and the instructor (and the instructor’s schedule).

There are two or three more adult learning principles that also apply here: adult learners want learning that’s (1) relevant and (2) task-based and they are goal-oriented in their learning. By designing short learning activities to teach relevant, task-based parts of a learner’s job, and allowing them to access microlearning to meet their goals when it’s useful for them, you can see how microlearning can support these adult learning principles as well. 

Microlearning and Spaced Practice

If you’ve been around in L&D for a while, you might be familiar with the concepts of spaced learning (aka spaced practice) and maybe even desirable difficulties. But if not, you’re no-doubt aware of the idea of refresher training, which is similar if not exactly the same. 

The point here is that it’s difficult to create training that leads to desired learning and performance outcomes if you rely solely on one-and-done training. You’re kind of setting yourself up for failure, or if nothing else, you’re making your job much harder than it needs to be and leaving things up to chance much more than necessary.

So instead of one-time training sessions, think of building a learning campaign that stretches out over time. Consider delivering training, waiting until workers begin to forget the new knowledge or skill, then assign some microlearning in a spaced learning strategy to create one of those desirable difficulties we talked about and help workers strengthen the neural connections in their brain that tie the new knowledge to existing, related knowledge (these are known as schemas or mental models). Bonus points to you if the spaced practice learning activity requires the worker to retrieve and/or apply instead of merely watch and/or recognize.

Microlearning and Interleaving

Interleaving is another of those so-called desirable difficulties we talked about.

The basic idea of microlearning is to not repeat, repeat, and repeat training on the same topic, but to alternate topics (so that you’re interleaving the topics). The cognitive “grind” caused by leaving one topic and switching over to another will ultimately strengthen those same neural connections and schemas we just talked about, even if it does create a little additional learning effort for the worker (remember, learning is work, it literally burns glucose and calories, and “engage” doesn’t mean “hey, that was fun!”). 

Imagine how microlearning courses might make it easier to assign a worker 2-3 short interleaved learning activities at the beginning of their day. Nice! 

What Are Some Ways to Use Microlearning?

There are lots, but here are a few to focus on.

As part of a normal training path or curriculum: You can use microlearning as parts of a larger training curriculum. In fact, workers might be pleased to come upon a microlearning activity now and then as they progress through their training path for all the reasons we mentioned (they’re overworked, they have little free time, they have too much information coming at them at once). Besides, it fits in nicely with the tested, trusted instructional design principle of chunking. PLUS, it provides you a learning asset that you can re-use for different learning and performance needs outside that particular training path as well.

For spaced practice: As mentioned above, you can use microlearning activities for spaced practice, increasing comprehension, depth-of-knowledge, retention, knowledge acquisition, skill development, transfer to the job, and more. Hoot hoot!

For performance support: As an L&D professional, your organization isn’t really paying you to train workers or facilitate learning. They’re paying you to help workers perform more productively on the job and to assist the organization in their efforts to reach their business goals. And so, in turn, you shouldn’t think of training as your sole job responsibility. Instead, think of yourself as a performance consultant or a performance improvement specialist. And it follows from that that you shouldn’t only design training, but you should design performance support to help workers when and where they need it--right there on the job at the moment of need (this is also sometimes called workflow learning). What’s performance support? It might be that Post-It note stuck on a computer, or a checklist by a machine, or a short how-to video of how to complete a work task. And microlearning activities are great for this. 

Tell Me More about “Performance Support”

Again, performance support is a way to put useful information into the hands of workers when and where they need it when they’re performing the job.

There may be times you decide to create performance support INSTEAD of training. Or maybe you’ll create performance support and training, but the primary point of the training will be to teach workers how to use the performance support.

Providing performance support can have a huge positive effect on the productivity of workers because it doesn’t rely on human memory, which is an imperfect (if wonderful) tool at best. 

How Do the “Five Moments of Training Need” Play Into This?

We’re not going to go into this in depth, but Bob Mosher and Conrad Gottfredson developed a model known as the Five Moments of Need, which explains that workers need to learn at five different “types” of moments:

  • When learning something new
  • When learning more 
  • When applying what they’re learned
  • When there’s a problem 
  • When things change

You can see how microlearning can help you deliver necessary information or practice opportunities to workers when and where they need for all or most of these moments of need. 

Is Microlearning Just for Mobile Learning?

We’ve already mentioned that mobile learning made it easier to use microlearning and played a role in its popularity. It made it easier to use something like a video for microlearning and it made it easier to deliver microlearning to workers at those moments of need we just talked about.

But remember, the definition of microlearning I suggested at the top was (1) short and (2) designed around a single learning objective.

That Post-It note works even without being delivered on a mobile phone, right?

What Types of Learning Activities Can Be Used in Microlearning?

The world is your oyster. A microlearning activity can be a PDF (or something like a manual, perhaps); a photo; an infographic; a short quiz; a short elearning course; a video; a quick team huddle; or just about anything else. Just pick the right format/delivery method to best support the learning need. 

Where Can I Learn More about Microlearning?

One good resource I know about is the book Microlearning: Short and Sweet by Karl Kapp and Robyn Defelice. Very credible offers and lots of good stuff in there. Give it a shot. And here are some good resources from the Learning Guild and our friend Shannon Tipton on microlearning. 

Does Vector Solutions Offer Microlearning Courses?

Why yes we do. We’re rolling out our first microlearning course releases in October, 2021 with more to follow. Let us know if you’ve got questions, would like a demo, etc

Can I Make My Own Microlearning?

You sure can. Easy ways to do it include making your own videos, infographics, checklists, or elearning courses.

You might also want to check out 7taps.com, they have a pretty cool tool for this (thanks to Billy Wilson for pointing this out to me recently). 


Conclusion: Give Microlearning A Chance at Your 

We hope you found this article on microlearning helpful and that you can use it to begin using microlearning at your workplace to improve training, performance, and business results. 

Let us know if you’ve got any questions and have a great day! 

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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