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Microlearning — How Short is Too Short?

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Hey! This post is part of our On Our Minds series. We heard several times that you want a partner that is always thinking, exploring, growing, and learning about learning. Well, that’s us. So instead of keeping all of our thoughts to ourselves, we’re sharing all the things swirling around in our mind. In this series you’ll find thoughts, half-baked ideas, and insight into the questions our strategy team is currently asking and the ideas we are exploring.

I hope you enjoy it.

— Michael Boulter, Director of Strategy at Maestro

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Lately, I’ve been thinking about a trend that’s been slowly plaguing the learning industry for the past 5 years or so… shorter and shorter training sessions. The idea of shorter learning sessions originally came about to enable learners to focus on one or two key takeaways. That’s great! But what’s not great is cramming more and more information into a shorter and shorter amount of time.

With microlearning, also known as bite-sized training or learning “bursts,” one thing we’re certainly not short on is buzzwords, but are we short on effectiveness? That’s the question.

Are shorter training sessions really better? 

Here’s what I’m thinking.

There are benefits to longer learning experiences

Spacing out learning opportunities enables learners to focus on key pieces of information, absorb that information, and then build on it over time.

Similarly, repetition (something that takes time) is a key element to learning and growth– repeating information over time sends a signal to your brain that it’s important, it builds up familiarity, and enables you to more easily recall it in the future.  And it’s not just repetition that matters. Experts argue that the spacing intervals are vital to long term comprehension as well. In fact, it’s the opportunity to forget and recall a piece of information that increases the likelihood of long term memory and comprehension. By spacing out a lesson and allowing time between different concepts, learners are able to not only build on concepts increasing in complexity, but they are also able to practice recalling and using the information they just learned. 

So, shorter bursts of learning can work, but learning professionals would need to incorporate frequent microlearning sessions in order for this method to be effective. 

Our attention span is short

The decreasing human ability to stay focused is pretty widely documented and accepted. 

While the human attention span was at about 12 seconds in 2000, it’s down to around 8 seconds today. And for reference, experts say the attention span of a goldfish is about 9 seconds. (Yes, you read that right. Our attention span is shorter than a goldfish’s.)

But what about something specific like social media content? To create an effective, engaging video post, experts say you better capture attention in the first 3 seconds of that Instagram Reel or your audience is scrolling on. And in a very scientific study (results based on a casual chat between me and 6 coworkers), we acknowledged that, in our own lives, Instagram Reels and TikToks that last more than 10 seconds are likely to get skipped.

So, acknowledging that our attention span is short (and has been getting even shorter over time), it makes sense that many learning professionals are integrating shorter learning experiences; however, there’s a fine line between time effective and ineffective. 

Related Blog Post

What is Dynamic Planning and Why is it Important for Your Learning Strategy?

We are busy

Whether you’ve taken on remote learning (either yourself or with your kiddos), continued working as a front liner, or adapted to working from home, experts suggest that we are all busier than ever. In addition to the many new and stressful tasks we’ve all taken on in our personal and professional lives, we can’t ignore that we’re also living through the collective trauma of a global pandemic, which is exhausting on its own. So, the trending preference for shorter learning opportunities makes a lot of sense. Perhaps now more than ever before. In fact, in a sea of Zoom meetings and video conferences, screen fatigue is a real concern. 

With less time and energy to devote to learning, microlearning lessons may better suit our busy schedules, but do they really suit our needs as learners?

The risk of shorter learning

When we make learning sessions shorter and shorter, we risk learning nothing at all.

So, is there a place in the education toolkit for microlearning? And perhaps more importantly, if there is a place for microlearning, how can learning professionals strategically incorporate it, and when should they opt for a longer format?

It’s a difficult question to answer, but it’s important to consider the audience and the material. It’s also important to recognize that shorter isn’t always better. Some complex information requires context, background, and repetition in order to be learned and retained. So, complex or nuanced lessons likely aren’t meant for the microlearning format, and if you choose to teach them in a microlearning lesson, you take a chance that your learners won’t retain the information.

Though you may want to cater to busy schedules and shorter attention spans, microlearning begs the question: by making learning shorter and shorter, are we eventually learning nothing at all?

How short is too short? 

Longer learning has its benefits. Experts suggest that opportunities for repetition and memory recall maximize the chances that learners will learn and retain concepts. However, experts also suggest that we have short attention spans and busy schedules, so it makes sense that we have (successfully and unsuccessfully) created shorter learning lessons. So now the question is—how short is too short? Surely a limit has to exist.

What else is on the minds of our strategy team?

There’s more where that came from. Check out this post from our Strategist, Kyle!

Read more