What Is Microlearning? An In-depth Guide for Beginners

Dear Reader, welcome to RapL’s adaptation of microlearning. Like the evergreen story of blind men and the elephant, microlearning is also interpreted in numerous ways. So, what is microlearning anyways? How does it matter to an individual or society?

Let us start by looking at some ways in which microlearning has influenced social well-being and corporate excellence.

Case 1: Microlearning is used to control cost overruns in Norwegian public construction projects

Public construction organizations depend on continuous exchange of applied knowledge and learning to achieve multiple business objectives. Projects are their operational backbone, and each successfully completed project is a book of learnings.

In this case study, we look at Norwegi, a public construction company responsible for spending 7.2 billion NOK, who wanted to focus on reducing cost overruns. They had already identified the root cause as the lack of transfer of financial management knowledge from previous projects. Now it was time to plug the gap.

Multiple microlearning exercises were compiled for various tracks like “cost efficiency”, “technology and digitization”, “cost estimation and cost control”, “standardization” etc.

Based on this analytical experience, the researchers developed a series of microlearning lessons. Seven lessons, each focusing on one aspect of the topic, were created. Poignant and clear language, as well as good illustrations or images, were employed. Some lessons also included a short video clip (30–60 seconds).

Video and sound enhanced the user experience, along with subtitles. Easy accessibility was assured by allowing access from both PC and mobile devices. Short lessons and intuitive layout contributed to smartphone-friendliness.

The threshold for starting a lesson was kept as low as possible. The lessons could be accessed through the link from the invitation email. When participants had completed a lesson, a page showed up indicating any lessons pending completion.

The reaction to the microlearning series was good. 50% of the participants completed the entire series, with 75% participation in the first lesson. At the end of the series, 91% of the participants affirmed that the microlearning course was relevant for them (source).

Researchers in India showed a risk reduction by educating a group of pre-diabetic Indian men. This group of men were being educated on the importance of eating right and exercising. 36% risk reduction was observed in their chances of becoming diabetic. This group was educated using a core microlearning instrument – periodic mobile phone messages reminding them to eat right and exercise.

A control group with the same sample size of pre-diabetic men was not exposed to any education, micro or otherwise. Needless to say, there was no significant risk reduction in this group.

Here’s to microlearning to improve the social health index! (source).

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Now that we have established microlearning’s effectiveness in diverse learning contexts, it’s time to define the specifics of this highly focused training mechanism. Following are some popular takes on the definition of microlearning, adopted by researchers and academicians:

Carla Togerson, Head of Learning Experience Strategy at the award-winning L&D consulting firm Torrancelearning, mentions: “Microlearning is learning content that can be consumed in less than 300 seconds.”

Theo Hug, a renowned author and authority on all things microlearning, says: “Microlearning is an expression of a specific perspective, which, in contrast to meso and macro aspects, is directed towards relatively small and time-restricted learning units and activities.”

At RapL, we align ourselves with the definition proposed by Karl Kapp in his groundbreaking research on the subject

“Microlearning is an instructional unit. It provides a short engagement in an activity designed to elicit a specific outcome from the participant.”

Here is a quick snapshot of the three key domains of this definition – “instructional unit,” “short engagement” and “specific results”.

Instructional Unit – A learning unit packed with an instruction-led design. These instructions are self-sufficient. When you add or subtract an idea from this instruction, its usefulness fades. They are usually in the form of short videos, a piece of text, a learning activity, quiz, etc. The above mentioned example of mobile messages instructing pre-diabetic men to eat right and exercise are two different instructional units.

Short Engagement – Most microlearning exercises are designed to be completed within minutes. The average is about 5 to 10 minutes.

Specific results – Each microlearning exercise is an attempt to build a specific micro-skill or behavior aimed at a very specific result. For example, the following microlearning map reinforces the accuracy and speed at which a Civil Engineer ‘can inspect a bridge’. This map helps ensure the bridge meets the three critical seismic design criteria. 

Microlearning maps in action. Notice how this microlearning exercise is specific in its approach to the inspection of seismic criteria. Also notice how this map influences a larger KPI Group of ‘Quality Assurance’. Source

Microlearning Principles

Like all forms of learning, microlearning also finds its roots in the following primary question:

Which learning domain am I trying to influence?

Microlearning as a construct of learning domains
The various learning areas that each training exercise aims to influence are:

  • cognitive
  • affective 
  • psychomotor

At RapL, we serve customers who try to create an impact on all domains. A brief explanation of these domains and their intersection with microlearning is key to establishing the microlearning principles.

The Cognitive Domain

It is the backbone on which efficient corporal function rests. The cognitive domain is a branch of learning that examines the role of intellectual processing skills. These skills are brought into practice to perform both mundane and complex tasks. A list of learning characteristics is essential to perform these tasks.

One such widely acclaimed list is Bloom’s Taxonomy. It tries to demystify these traits, starting with knowledge (“I know about all the parts used to build a bicycle”) to synthesis (“I know how to build a bicycle”).

Microlearning plays an important role in this pyramid of traits.

Microlearning has effective applications in building the Knowledge, Comprehension, Application and Analysis layers of the Bloom’s pyramid. Source

The table below represents the cascading levels of microlearning effectiveness for each term.

Bloom’s TermDefinitionAppropriate for MicrolearningExample
KnowledgeExpress an understanding of a subject by recalling from memory.Yes

i) “Watch the short video on dietary needs of a German Shepherd.”

ii) “Next, take the quiz to claim the ‘expert’ badge.”

ComprehensionOrganize learnings, compare and contrast ideas, and summarize concepts.Yes“In less than 30 words, explain why X is better than Y.”
ApplicationApply learnings in diverse scenarios.Yes“An irate customer wants to know the process to cancel her subscription. She says most content she wants to watch is not available in her country. From listening to support calls, which of the following options works best to pacify the customer?”
AnalysisBuild analytical inferences by breaking down a problem statement into its parts.Yes“You notice that refunds in last month have increased by 10% MoM. What’s the first sub-metric you would analyze to get to the root of the issue?”
SynthesisA new creation by utilizing existing information.No“Build an annual Go-to-Market (GTM) plan for the enterprise software division of Acme Inc.”
EvaluationDecide a future. course of action based on past experiences and intellectual computations.No“The Board of Directors of Acme Inc. has shifted focus from growth to profitable unit economics for the current fiscal year. As a CFO, recommend the top 5 organizational savings opportunities.”

You will notice that the first four levels of Bloom’s Taxonomy are the most appropriate for microlearning. They are knowledge/remember, comprehension/understanding, application/applying and analysis.

When you get to a higher level of thinking skills, the other forms of learning become more effective. It takes a lot of time and effort to perform the mental processes required to create and evaluate. These thinking processes are suitable for education, workshops, mentoring and training. They may not be suitable for standalone microlearning. 

The Affective Domain

Remember our mobile loving, diabetes quashing bunch of doctors from above? They were trying to change dietary and fitness behaviors. This is exactly what the Affective Domain caters to – changing our behaviors.

Krathwohl, Bloom & Masia, often-cited thinkers in the realm of Affective Domain, define it as:

“The manner in which we deal emotionally with things, for example feelings, values, appreciation, enthusiasm, motivations, and attitudes.”

The aim of microlearning in shaping behavioral change is to help learners reinforce and recall both the approach of change and the associated devices.

There are many steps involved in the shift that Krathwohl, Bloom and Masia further highlight in their research. Those are:

  1. Receive: A participant’s ability and willingness to listen to others. The earliest sign of “receiving” is the neural connections between an infant and the parent to listen to the latter’s instructions.

  2. Responding: This is the phase after receiving. Here, individuals respond to the “received” stimulus. The responses could be questions, creative discussions, debates or mere facial expressions. This skill helps build interpersonal relationships and a social quotient, which tend to determine larger attitudes.

  3. Valuing: All this receiving and responding creates continuously evolving values. This is the result of analyzing and internalizing these exchanges. Expressing these values is a deliberate process to showcase the ideas and events that individuals appreciate or not.

  4. Organizing: When multiple values clash, people choose to organize them like files in a 90s cabinet. Frequently used values take precedence over others. The ones evoked less often are tightly retained, but somewhere in the back alleys. Each individual has uniquely held values for all the key stimuli in the world that make values seem like DNA.

  5. Characterizing: The final leg, characterization is the stage when individuals start proclaiming the said behavior. They deliberately position themselves as the provider of the said values. They actively take part in educating others and voicing the importance of behavior over the public.

Microlearning is used to reinforce and recall instructions during the Receiving, Responding, Valuing and Organizing stages. Here is a look at how a regular Prevention of Sexual Harassment (POSH) training exercise can be divided into Krathwohl’s hierarchy, along with its associated microlearning applications.

Krathwohl’s TermDefinitionAppropriate For MicrolearningExample
ReceivingA participant’s willingness to listen and ability to hear others out.YesA POSH training video.
RespondingThe phase where individuals respond to the ‘receiving’ stimulus. The response could be through questions, creative discussions, debates or mere facial expressions.YesScenario based micro quizzes on POSH principles.
ValuingAll this receiving and responding creates a set of evolving values. These values are the result of analyzing and internalizing these exchanges.YesHigh-level quiz that factors multiple scenarios and certifies the participant on all key POSH aspects.
OrganizingWhen multiple values collide, individuals organize them, like files in a 90s cabinet.YesAsking a participant to recap all their interpretations about POSH through a voice note.
CharacterizingIt is the stage when individuals start advocating the said behavior and position themselves as the provider of the said values.NoParticipants voluntarily sign up to create post course reinforcement content for other employees.

The Psychomotor Domain

The psychomotor field is central to our understanding of how we show physical capabilities everyday. This domain links physical activities, motor skills and mental processing. Learning to drive your first car is a prime example of the psychomotor domain. 

Like the cognitive and affective domains, the psychomotor domain also has its progressive stage ladder. RH Dave, the prominent researcher of the psychomotor domain, proposed five stages for development.

Dave’s term

Definition

Appropriate for microlearning

Example

Imitation

Observing and copying someone else’s action. 

Yes

Watch a driving instructor’s video.

Manipulation

Attempting the physical manipulation of the imitation by using tools or devices.

Yes

Getting to drive your first mile with an instructor’s supervision.

Precision

Replication of the skills required to do the physical task in exactness, without any guidance.

No

Nailing the driver’s test to get your license without any help.

Articulation

Combining and performing two or more skills.

No

Driving and parallel parking.

Naturalization

Combining and performing two or more skills, with fluency and without any mental exertion.

No

Creating videos about parallel parking.

To recap,

  • Microlearning has an application in all three learning domains: cognitive, affective, and psychomotor.
  • Microlearning is appropriate for some, but not all stages of mastery in the three domains. For example, synthesizing and evaluating intellectual constructs to create something new is difficult to achieve via microlearning.

Uses of Microlearning

We have now understood that microlearning has different applications, like cognitive, affective and psychomotor learning. Now, it is essential to build on these basic concepts for a better understanding of the different learning outcomes and use cases.

The choice of outcome determines the use case. So, we should look at the different types of results that a microlearning exercise seeks to influence.

Microlearning Outcomes

Most microlearning outcomes are one of these four categories – supplementing, reinforcing, augmenting or remediating. 

  1. Supplement learning: Supplementing is about finding new ways to engage learners. It helps in better understanding of concepts and ideas about a topic.

  2. Strengthen learning: Regular use of training material is crucial for the execution of tasks. It also helps demonstrate skills repeatedly.

  3. Augment learning: There are inaccurate ways where ‘augment’ and ‘supplement’ are used as synonyms. Augmenting is very different from supplementing. Augmenting warrants that a topic’s understanding is greatly enhanced by periodic learning interventions after participants process it for the first time.
    On the other hand, supplementing is a process in which an existing conceptual deficiency is overcome by providing a participant with additional information and context.

  4. Remediate performance: It is an intervention to prevent factors that lead to poor performance. We have already established that the results are the pedestals on which use cases are developed. Hence, let us dry some digital ink to explore the various use cases that are ready for microlearning.

Microlearning Use Cases

There are 6 predominant clusters of microlearning use cases that find majority applications in a learning calendar. A tabular representation highlights each use case elaborately. A corresponding work scenario that accelerates learning outcomes and a contextual example are included to help build similar parallels for your requirements. The table also highlights possible measures that calculate gains from these exercises.

Use Case 1: Pensive Microlearning

Pensive learning is a process in which participants are encouraged to reflect on a concept, scenario, or task. It helps develop better mental models for action. Augmenting and enhancing are the most preferred outcomes out of pensive learning.

When you build a pensive learning program, you should ask questions revolving around repeated business scenarios that participants usually ignore as irrelevant. ‘Familiarity breeds contempt’, and that’s true for everyday business scenarios too. So, before contempt sets in for day-to-day tasks, you could think about pensive microlearning as a potent solution.

Let us take an example of project managers at Acme Inc, a manufacturer of Direct To Consumer coffee products. They face business risks in everyday operations. The risk can be attributed to many sources. Volatility in the price of raw materials is one of them. If such risks are not properly managed, there can be severe implications on the top and bottom line. Pensive microlearning is custom-fit for a challenge like this. Risk management is an essential trait for success in Acme’s project. The following table highlights how trainers can effectively leverage pensive microlearning to build risk-free processes.

Use Case 2: Performance Microlearning

Performance-centric microlearning is a form of interference to help a participant finish a task in real time. This type of learning is typically weaved inside a workflow. So, participants can choose whether to access it or not if they stumble into unknown or tricky performance territory.

A printed list of rebuttals to common objections for front-line sales representatives in a cosmetic store is a prime example of performance microlearning. The new sales reps can choose to look up the list. They might also choose to refresh their neural pathways 6 months into the job. The common thread is that both groups can stay fresh with their responses to common objections, which is an everyday performance task. Performance microlearning can supplement, reinforce and enhance learning.

Let’s revisit the learning landscape at Acme Inc, our familiar D2C coffee brand. They successfully completed the risk management training. They now want to familiarize their marketing team with all the ingredients of their much-known “Geisha coffee mix.” This is an important exercise, as their advertising stories rely on educating buyers about these ingredients. A microlearning exercise helps the team appreciate the mix.

Here’s how a learning card for such an intervention would look like.

Use Case 3: Persuasive Microlearning

Let’s refer to our doctors from the diabetes case study earlier. They exposed a variant group to SMS messages reminding them to eat right and exercise regularly. They were trying to persuade them, but about what? Behavioral change.

All persuasive microlearning initiatives are aimed at changing existing behaviors/attitudes. This helps make way for more favorable behaviors. Augmentation and remediation are the most effective outcomes of persuasive microlearning.

Acme Inc. took stock of the risk factors and trained marketing teams to become experts in their product ingredient mix. Then the observation was that baristas were not accustomed to requesting feedback from customers. Though the baristas were trained around this key SOP principle, the underlying problem was this key detail was explained just once in their orientation. Overlooking such crucial feedback points hindered Acme’s efforts to get closer to its customers.

This is a classic example where a behavioral shift was sought. Persuasive microlearning solves similar texture problems and ensures organizations reward the right behavior.

Here’s how a microlearning card for such an intervention would look like

Use Case 4: Post-Instruction Microlearning

Post-instruction microlearning extracts the key principles from a larger training exercise, like classroom training, and atomizes key learning takeaways. Think of this as a refresher course that participants can engage with, at their pace and in a context that works for them. This form of training is used to augment, supplement and reinforce learnings. Like all departments, the CSR division at Acme Inc. had secured an executive buy-in to drive an ‘ethical sourcing’ policy. According to this policy, Acme Inc. would only work with farmers and manufacturers who agreed to maintain a predetermined standard of ethical treatment for raw materials like cocoa, tea and coffee. Post-instruction microlearning finds a tight application here. There were 7 days of classroom training, followed by Zoom conferences on the key clauses of an ethical procurement checklist. Later, a post-instruction reinforcement exercise went on for about 30 days in a spaced manner. This was a great way to ensure that employees effectively recalled the standards.

Here’s how a post-instruction microlearning card would look like

Use Case 5: Practice-Based Microlearning

Practice-based microlearning is designed to help participants practice an instructional unit to develop a specific skill on completion of training. It usually involves building several denominations of skill units.

Each of these could be practiced repeatedly until it is etched in the participant’s neural pathway.

Practice-based microlearning augments, reinforces and remediates actions and behaviors required for successfully performing the skill. Acme Inc. has an army of auditors who work as a global unit. In several non-US geographies, GAAP is not the standard accounting practice. Acme consolidates all earnings and reports in a combined financial statement. New auditors who join Acme in non-US geographies need expertise in GAAP to maintain consistent accounting standards. A practice-based microlearning approach would help reinforce major accounting principles by practicing GAAP fundamentals on sample balance sheets in the form of quizzes.

Here’s how a practice-based microlearning card would look for Acme

Use Case 6: Preparatory Microlearning

Preparatory microlearning is a pre-training engagement. It warms participants and gives them a contextual background before they start the learning process. It is a precursor to large investments in time and cognitive effort used in things like daily classroom learning.

The key outcomes of preparatory microlearning are supplementing and improving a training exercise.

Microlearning Benefits

Microlearning is a learning strategy that delivers educational content in small, bite-sized chunks. This approach has many benefits over traditional, long-form learning methods. Microlearning increases engagement and retention, improves accessibility, and delivers targeted, personalized content. Increased engagement and retention: Because microlearning delivers educational content in small, easily digestible chunks, learners are more likely to stay focused and engaged. This can help improve retention, as learners can absorb and remember the information more effectively. Improved accessibility: With microlearning, learners can access the content on their own terms. They can watch a short video on their phone during a work break, or listen to an audio lesson while commuting. This flexibility makes it easier for learners to fit learning into their busy schedules, especially for those with limited time for formal learning. Ability to deliver targeted, personalized content: Because the content is delivered in small chunks, it can be easily tailored to the specific needs and interests of individual learners. This can help ensure that learners receive the information they need when they need it. This can be particularly helpful for those working on a specific skill or learning a new topic. Listed here are just a few benefits of microlearning. Listed here are just a few benefits. To know more, click here

Microlearning Applications

One of the most effective ways to implement microlearning is through the use of microlearning apps. These apps allow learners to access educational content on their mobile devices, which means they can learn anytime, anywhere. This can be particularly useful for learners looking to improve their skills while on the go. Some key features of microlearning apps include:
  • Short, engaging content: Microlearning apps typically deliver content in short videos, audio clips, or other interactive media. This makes the material easy to consume and keeps learners engaged.
  • Personalized learning paths: Many microlearning apps allow learners to create personalized learning paths tailored to their specific goals and interests. This can help learners focus on the material relevant to them and ensure they are making progress towards their learning objectives.
  • Gamification: Many microlearning apps use gamification techniques to make the learning experience more engaging and fun. This can include points, badges, leaderboards, etc., to motivate continued engagement.
The top microlearning apps that made it to our list are
  1. RapL
  2. EdApp
  3. QStream
  4. Axonify7
  5. Taps

Microlearning vs Traditional Learning

Microlearning is a term used to describe a learning method that involves breaking down information into small, manageable chunks. It is usually delivered in short, bite-sized formats, such as videos, infographics, or quizzes. Traditional learning, on the other hand, is a more formal type of learning often delivered in longer formats, such as lectures, textbooks, or classroom-based instruction. Microlearning and traditional learning both have their pros and cons. It can be hard to decide which type of learning is best for you. Consider what you want to get out of your learning experience, and choose the option that will best help you achieve your goals. Here are some things to consider when making your decision.

Microlearning is more flexible and can be done in short, bite-sized sessions. This means it can be fitted into a busy schedule more easily than traditional learning. Traditional learning is usually more comprehensive and in-depth. This means it can be better for learning complex topics.
Microlearning is often more engaging, as it uses multimedia content and interactive activities. This engagement can help learners retain information better and apply it in real-world situations. Traditional learning can be seen as more formal, which may be unappealing for some learners.
Microlearning can be customized to meet the needs of the learner, while traditional learning methods are usually a one-size-fits-all approach.

Want to dig deeper? Here you go. 

Microlearning Best practices

When creating microlearning content, there are a few best practices to keep in mind. Here are some best practices for using microlearning:

Keep it short and sweet: Microlearning content should be concise and to the point. Learners should be able to consume the content in a few minutes. Make it bite-sized. In addition to being short, microlearning content should also be easy to digest. Breaking down complex topics into smaller chunks makes them easier to understand and remember.

Use different media types: Varying the type of content you use (e.g. videos, infographics, articles, etc.) helps keep learners engaged and prevents information overload.
Include practice activities. Giving learners opportunities to practice what they’ve learned helps them solidify their knowledge and skills. Practice activities can be as simple as a quick quiz or exercise at the end of each topic.

Use spaced repetition: Spacing out content delivery over time helps learners retain information better than cramming everything into one sitting. Using microlearning allows you to easily space out content delivery, so learners have time to process and remember what they’ve learned before moving on to new material.
When used correctly, microlearning can help learners retain information and improve performance.

We believe this document is a thorough primer on getting your hands-on microlearning right. It will take you from defining microlearning to elaborating on its principles and applications. The authors at RapL’s research labs can guide you through the basic principles of microlearning.

This is a work-in-progress guide to which we frequently add new chapters.
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