Understanding microlearning and the benefits of microlearning in your workplace

Susan Hurrell
Woman smiling slightly with brown, chin-length hair and glasses.
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I’m sure you’ve heard that quaint old saying, “You learn something new every day.” These days, we learn dozens of new things almost without knowing that we are “learning.” It takes virtually no effort to swipe around on my phone and learn a new cooking technique, find out what the weather will be this week, or discover how to hook up my new gaming console. 

While this everyday on-demand digital learning is almost effortless, sometimes work-related training can still feel like it requires effort. I get it because I also take long-form online courses to improve my skills. Long-form courses are necessary – vital – to most industries' ability to achieve their training goals. Employers must put their team members through onboarding, everboarding, upskilling, and reskilling – all essential to educating workers on what they need to know to do their jobs. 

Long-form training takes people away from the sales counter or the shop floor or, as in my case, the project on my laptop and task list at hand. It temporarily reduces perceived productivity with the promise of better performance and outputs in the future. Mostly, it takes time – sometimes, sessions are an hour long, and a course can take many days or even weeks to complete and requires our full focus for the duration of the session. 

These are why many companies and organizations supplement their long-form training with efficient, effective, and engaging microlearning. Microlearning is a powerful tool that can help organizations deliver learning in bite-sized, easy-to-digest chunks – often delivered on a mobile device like a smartphone or tablet. With a microlearning platform, you can prompt your learners to take a few minutes of training at various times during their work day. Some companies schedule the first fifteen minutes of their day as a company-wide microlearning session. Others allow their learners to access their courses at their own pace – so people are taking training during their commute, waiting for a meeting, or whenever it fits into their regular work-day schedule. 

So let’s talk about microlearning and how it benefits your business. In this article, I’ll cover

What is microlearning?

Microlearning is a training delivery method that breaks down complex topics into small, easily digestible pieces of information. This learning approach uses short, focused modules that are typically under 10 minutes long. Microlearning content can be in various formats like videos, infographics, podcasts, quizzes, or interactive modules.

Microlearning delivers quick, targeted learning that is easy for learners to consume and can be structured using both interleaved learning and scaffolded learning – two learning philosophies that make information easier to retain. It is usually designed to provide learners with immediate feedback on their performance and often has gamification elements built right into the interface, like points, rewards, and leaderboards.

Adaptive microlearning uses algorithms to assess each learner’s performance and adjust the course content and frequency accordingly – to meet each individual’s learning and forgetting curve. This feature is one to insist on when picking a microlearning platform. 

Microlearning can stand alone as a training delivery method or supplement or reinforce instructor-led sessions or long-form online training. The goal is to ensure that learners understand the key concepts and can apply them effectively. 

Microlearning can even be used to establish a baseline knowledge check in advance of other long-form or instructor-led training, providing the Training Administrator with insight into what that learner or cohort of learners knows vs. what they need to know. These knowledge checks can also be used when a learner is engaged in long-form training to build knowledge retention after that initial training is complete.

What microlearning is not

It's important to note that microlearning is not a replacement for all forms of learning. It's not a one-size-fits-all solution, and it's not suitable for every topic or learning objective. Here’s where bite-sized training has its limitations. Microlearning, generally speaking, is not:

Comprehensive: Microlearning is not intended to provide a comprehensive overview of a topic. Instead, it is designed to provide targeted, focused learning on specific concepts to improve knowledge retention. A microlearning course can be comprehensive, but it has to be designed firmly with that goal during the course build. 

In-depth: Microlearning is not intended to provide in-depth knowledge on a topic. It's designed to give learners an overview of key concepts and ideas. You can add more in-depth information to your microlearning courses by providing rich answer feedback for both correct and incorrect answers. Use this feature in your microlearning platform to expand on the answers and provide additional context. You can also incorporate knowledge cards if your microlearning platform has that feature to deliver foundational and more in-depth information to your learners. 

A substitute for training: Microlearning is not a substitute for classroom training or hands-on experience. It's a supplement that can reinforce classroom training or provide just-in-time learning. Because most microlearning is consumed on a smaller-screen mobile device or tablet, animations and simulations may not work as well to deliver these commonly used alternatives for hands-on training. Depending on the skill being taught – some training just has to be done in person – like parts assembly or other manual skills.

How can microlearning be useful for your workplace?

Let’s start with the premise that your company uses long-form online training to deliver your onboarding and everboarding training and any upskilling or reskilling training your employees need. Your learners go through their courses and complete them as assigned. Long-form training is generally “one-and-done” – your new hire won’t retake their onboarding courses once completed.

Microlearning can boost knowledge retention – turning your one-and-done training into ongoing refresher courses that keep key concepts top of mind. Here are some ways you can use microlearning to boost employee retention.

Four blocks in a row, each with 3 icons and a title. From left-to-right: Workplace Health & Safety (icons: heart with a pulse line, user in a hard hat, and a fire extinguisher); Performance Supports (icons: file, magnifying glass, four puzzle pieces); Compliance Training (icons: checkmark in a circle, thumbs up, cog); Team Building (icons: smiley face, group of three users, speech bubble).

Workplace Health and Safety: Keep core principles and best practices top of mind, so the information can be recalled more quickly in times of need (meaning accident or crisis.) From knowing the location of the first aid kit and fire extinguishers to reinforcing the right choices in “what do to when” scenarios, your team will develop a “safety-first” mindset due to consistent reinforcement of what they need to know and do to keep their job site and each other safe.

Performance Supports: Long-form training can illuminate commonly held knowledge gaps within your team as a cohort – by location, tenure, department, or job role/title. Creating microlearning that speaks to these identified gaps helps embed this learning for quicker recall. With a performance support, your team will spend less time looking for the manual for that thing they use infrequently, or a team member that remembers the correct process to do that task that comes up once a quarter – like how to fill out an expense form or submit a vacation request. 

If your microlearning platform has knowledge cards feature, your platform also acts as a knowledge base on your employees’ mobile devices – allowing them to search quickly and find the answer in the palm of their hand. This is another feature – searchable knowledge cards – that your microlearning system must have to be of maximum benefit to your learners. 

Compliance Training: If you are in a regulated industry, and your employees need to meet mandated compliance training standards, microlearning can ensure that 100% of the required information is revisited over the months or even years between compliance examinations. 

Think of it this way. Your learner takes their initial course and gets their certification. Great! A year later, they must recertify, so they either make time to retake their initial course, cram through their notes from the first enrollment, or wing it, hoping they remember enough to get the 80% they need to pass. Microlearning breaks their training material down into daily bite-sized modules, so over the course of the year, in just minutes a day, your team member can revisit every important piece of information at least once, if not multiple times – building knowledge retention with every exposure to the material. 

Team Building: As companies grow, and with the post-pandemic increase in the number of remote workers, how do you keep your people connected on a human level to maximize the benefits of a strong team dynamic – or even just who is who and what do they do? At Neovation, every employee has a bio page as part of our microlearning platform’s knowledge cards, with our picture and some interesting information about our backgrounds, current role, and some employee-submitted trivia. As new people join our fully remote team, we all get to know each other more quickly, and this reduces the “who’s that/I’m the new person” awkwardness and helps break down the barriers of distance and disconnection.

Three industry-specific examples of how microlearning helps

Manufacturing: A manufacturing company could use microlearning to train employees on new equipment, processes, or safety procedures. For example, you could create short modules on operating a specific machine or properly using personal protective equipment (PPE). Microlearning could also be used to reinforce previous training, such as on quality control or lean manufacturing practices.

Retail: A retail operation could use microlearning to train employees on customer service skills, sales techniques, or product knowledge. For example, you could create short modules on how to handle difficult customers, upsell products, or explain new product features. Microlearning could also be used to train employees on company policies and procedures, such as cash handling or returns.

Healthcare: A hospital could use microlearning to train employees on patient care, compliance, or safety procedures. For example, you could create short modules on how to properly administer medications, how to prevent the spread of infections, or how to handle medical emergencies. Microlearning could also be used to train employees on regulations and laws related to healthcare, such as HIPAA or OSHA guidelines.

What microlearning offers your learners

The benefits of microlearning also extend to your learners. Here’s what we know.

10 blocks in a 5x2 grid. Top row, left-to-right: Text that reads, "Personalized" with an icon (user with a checkmark); character wearing a hard hat and overalls, holding a ruler; character in a doctor's white coat, with a stethoscope around their neck; text that reads, "Flexibility" with an icon two merged arrows going off in differnt directions); character in a chef hat and apron, holding a rolling pin. Bottom row, left-to-right: character in a sweatervest holding a stack of books; text that reads, "Engagement" with an icon (hand pointer); character in scrubs holding a cat; character holding a camera with a shoulder bag; text that reads, "Retention" with an icon (head with a brain).

Flexibility: Microlearning allows learners to learn at their own pace and on their own schedule. This flexibility is especially important in today's remote work environment, where employees may work from different time zones or have varying schedules.

Engagement: Microlearning can be gamified or made into game-based training modules that engage learners with a sense of competition or challenge. This approach to learning helps learners stay motivated and engaged.

Personalization: Microlearning can be adapted to individual learner needs, allowing for a more personalized learning experience. Adaptive microlearning can analyze the performance of individual learners and provide personalized recommendations on what content they should focus on.

Retention: Microlearning is designed to deliver targeted, relevant content in small, manageable chunks. This approach to learning is beneficial because it allows learners to retain the information they learn better.

And there’s one more thing that deserves its own section.

Microlearning solves the problems of short attention spans and interruptions

Yes, there is a correlation between shorter attention spans and the success of microlearning in improving learner retention of knowledge. In today's fast-paced world, people are used to consuming information in bite-sized chunks. They often have shorter attention spans due to the constant distractions from digital devices and social media. Microlearning addresses this by providing short, focused bursts of learning that can be consumed in a few minutes or less.

Research has shown that microlearning can improve learner retention of knowledge by delivering information in small, digestible chunks that are easier for the brain to process and remember. When learners are presented with too much information at once, they can become overwhelmed and have difficulty retaining it. However, by breaking down information into smaller, more manageable pieces, learners can better process and remember what they have learned.

The same applies to interruptions. Nothing is worse than going through a course, struggling to learn and absorb the material, and then being interrupted just as you are at a critical moment in your learning comprehension. You have to restart your thought process – and the cost of interruptions that break our concentration has been well documented. Here’s what UC Berkley has to say:

  • 12 mins 40 seconds – Avg time spent on a task before being interrupted
  • 25 mins 26 secs – Avg time elapsed before returning to work on the same task
  • 15 mins – Avg time required, after resuming a difficult task, to get back into the same level of intense concentration
  • 2.8 secs – Length of interruption required to cause subjects to commit twice the number of computer errors
  • 63% of tasks that are interrupted in open-plan offices
  • 49% of tasks that are interrupted in private offices
Infographic of stats in 3 blocks. Block one is titled, "The average time (m:s)..." with the following stats in a horizontal bar chart: "...spent on a task before being interrupted: 12:40," "...required, after resuming a difficult task, to get back into the same level of intense concentration: 25:26," and "...elapsed before returning to work on the same task: 15:00." Below this is the second block with the stat, "2.8s:Length of interruption required to cause subjects to commit twice the number of computer errors" beside a stopwatch icon. The final block is titled, "% of tasks interrupted in..." with two donut charts stacked underneath. Top chart: "...open-plan offices," 63%; "...private offices," 49%. (Source: https://hr.berkeley.edu/impact-interruptions)

When it comes to those of us who are remote workers, I couldn't find any hard stats on interruptions, except for consistent commentary that interruptions for remote workers now comes from both their coworkers and from within the home environment (families, pets, deliveries, etc.) 

No matter where you work – the shorter your learning session, the less likely it is to be interrupted. As I said above, most microlearning “tasks” can be completed in under ten minutes – under the average threshold of time spent doing something before – you guessed it – being interrupted. 

In addition to improving retention, microlearning can help learners stay engaged and motivated by giving them a sense of progress and accomplishment. When learners complete a short module or quiz, they receive immediate feedback and can see their progress in real time, which can motivate and encourage them to continue learning.

Microlearning effectively addresses the challenges of shorter attention spans and improves learner retention of knowledge in today's fast-paced world. By providing short, focused bursts of learning that are easy to consume and remember, microlearning can help learners stay engaged and motivated while achieving their learning goals.

Microlearning: Knowledge retention-based, engaging, bite-sized training

Learners need the best experience possible to keep them engaged in their training. Whenever possible, it should fit seamlessly into their workday, with minimal interruption to their workflow – known as workflow learning – and then with minimal interruption to their training time so they can get it done and retain the information they have been assigned.

Microlearning breaks down learning into schedulable, manageable chunks that can fit into the learner’s schedule or be self-directed. Adaptive microlearning tailors the training content to each learner’s demonstrated learning and forgetting curve – who wants to be asked a question they know that they know every single session? Not me! 

Properly developed microlearning courses can draw on everything we know about the cognitive science of learning. You can read more about that in our whitepaper about how we integrated cognitive science principles into our OttoLearn microlearning platform here at Neovation. 

Microlearning improves knowledge retention and makes it easy for learners to learn. If you’d like to discuss how to strategically deploy microlearning in your organization, we’d love to talk with you. Or you can read more about microlearning, or other online training technology, here in the Learning Hub.

Woman smiling slightly with brown, chin-length hair and glasses.
Susan Hurrell

With 15+ years of online marketing and online learning experience, Susan loves to share insights about where these two ROI-building practices can intersect and complement each other for your business or organization.

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