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Microlearning Modules: Tiny Training that Packs a Punch

By Henno Koetz

13 Min Read

In this post Henno Kotze, Senior Instructional Designer at Compono (and self-confessed microlearning fanatic), tells us why microlearning is the perfect learning format for today’s time-poor workplace.

Well-designed microlearning can:

  • provide on-the-job, just-in-time training,
  • be cost-effective and workflow-friendly, 
  • motivate and engage the learner, and
  • lead to faster and longer learning gains and performance outcomes.

I recently listened to a podcast featuring BJ Fogg, author of the best-selling book Tiny Habits: The Small Changes that Change Everything. He spoke about the premise of the book: changing behaviour permanently requires baby steps. This is because the main reason people give up is from feeling overwhelmed. 

I decided to implement this ‘incremental improvement’ strategy with one of my goals for the year: improving my fitness and strength. I decided to do at least two pushups every time I wash my hands. The handwashing acts as the ‘memory trigger’ and using only two pushups as the baseline means I’ll never feel overwhelmed with too much to do and thus give up. I also wash my hands quite often which means I’d technically end up doing quite a few pushups during the day.

Pocket-sized, principle-based learning 

This strategy of small actions to meet a bigger goal made me think of microlearning as small amounts of learning or training over time can lead to big improvements. That’s because microlearning tilts away from more traditional modes of learning towards smaller, bite-sized chunks of information. Well-designed microlearning draws on a range of pedagogical models and theories. It might be micro but it’s definitely not frail because it’s also solidly grounded in principles from learning science.

At its core, microlearning respects the limitations of the human brain. According to Cognitive Load Theory, our brain is only capable of processing small volumes of new information at once. In fact, the average learner only retains four information chunks at a time in what’s called our ‘working memory’ (not to mention that we are constantly and actively forgetting all the time!1) So, good microlearning can be described as pocket-sized, principle-based learning that packs a punch. 

Microlearning’s time has come

A 2019 report from LinkedIn2 showed that the biggest barrier to learning and development for today’s workforce is time. This is despite 74% of employees stating they want to learn during their spare time at work. This contradiction is an unfortunate characteristic of the modern workplace – we feel like we simply don’t have enough hours in the day to invest in learning something new. In Tiny Habits, Fogg writes about this as the ‘scarcity mindset’. He says, “We believe that there will never be enough time, so we say no to changes because we feel like we don’t have the hours to cultivate new positive habits.” Yet this is exactly where microlearning comes to the fore. It is quickly positioning itself as the perfect mode of knowledge delivery to slot into our busy daily routines. Like changing our habits one small step at a time, it makes learning something new seem manageable and achievable, just like those two pushups I do after washing my hands. 

Advantages for the learner

Don’t just take my word for it: the research is there to back it up, too. Numerous studies supports the pedagogical benefits of microlearning, which include (but are not limited to):

  • enhancing long-term knowledge retention3
  • increased learner engagement4
  • more flexible learning (as micro courses are often mobile-first)
  • greater motivation to learn and more learning satisfaction5
  • greater learning performance6 and outcomes7
The business benefits of microlearning

From an L&D management perspective, microlearning is also an effective training option, for several key reasons: 

  • Just-in-time knowledge: Due to its baked-in brevity, one of the affordances of microlearning is its ability to focus on key, actionable takeaways, compared to longer, information-heavy courses. The micro format can offer that need-to-know, just-in-time knowledge, whether it be via an explainer video or a mobile performance support tool or some other media-rich format.

    At Compono we recently launched our first four microlearning modules - a series of learning courses focused on the pertinent topics of ‘Workplace Behaviour’ and ‘Cybersecurity’. These modules speak directly to the learner who needs to achieve something now. As such, they provide access to just-in-time learning, meeting the learner’s need as it arises. The modules are short, engaging, and to-the-point. You could consider them the eLearning equivalent of popping down to your more experienced colleague’s desk when you’re stuck on what’s the right process to follow or need some immediately applicable advice. In short, they speed up the learning process, widen access to knowledge, and therefore improve productivity and business outcomes.
  • Performance gaps: Another powerful advantage of microlearning is that it can directly (and quite immediately) address performance gaps. The short seat time8 means that employees can return to these courses as reference material, to practice a skill, or for reinforcement whenever needed without carving out large swathes of time from their workday.

    The Compono Micro Modules are built fit-for-purpose with performance gaps in mind. They’re framed with the phrase “So you…”, providing the learner with the necessary tools to solve a specific problem, such as keeping work devices secure at home or using more inclusive language in the workplace. 
  • Workflow friendly: The fact that this type of training also fits into an employee’s daily routine and workflow is another business benefit of microlearning. With workforces becoming more flexible and no longer location-anchored, mobile-based microlearning removes the logistical obstacles often associated with training and professional development while boosting accessibility and productivity.

    Our Compono Micro Modules keep the daily workflow in mind and have a seat time of around six minutes. Each one is designed around one learning objective, for example, to give the learner an immediate course of action they can follow if they’d like to escalate a problem related to unfair workplace treatment. Respecting the limitations of working memory, they also yield only 4-5 key takeaways each. Each module also comes with a handy downloadable summary that learners can keep on their device or print out for easy reference at their workspace.
  • Cost effective: And if these weren’t reason enough, the fact that microlearning is a much cheaper option than traditional training should win over even the most sceptical L&D managers. At under 10 minutes in length, they’re more cost-effective to resource, design, and launch.

    Mind Gym9 claim that microlearning options are 30% cheaper and deliver almost twice the return on investment when compared to traditional workplace training. So, from a business point of view, it’s evident that microlearning makes sense.
Microlearning applications

All of these advantages don’t mean that microlearning should just replace all other types of learning and training. Instead, it should be seen as another offering, alongside other course delivery modes. Learning is a very contextual experience and providing it in the best way at the right time is nothing short of an artform. This then begs the question: What type of content is it suitable for? 

  • Reinforcement & enhancement: For one, it’s not just taking a large, information-laden course and splitting it into smaller parts. What it can be, however, is as an actionable supplement to a bigger, more complex topic. At Compono, our Micro Modules augment and enhance larger, informational Skills Library courses. For instance, in our Skills Library course Introduction to Cyber Security, learners find out how to identify cyberthreats and how to keep their information safe online and in the real world. From this course, we created two Micro Modules that focus on specific, actionable skills regarding cybersecurity: 1. staying safe on social media and 2. keeping work devices secure while working from home. From the larger course, learners walk away with the ‘why’, and from the Micro Modules, they walk away with the ‘how’, or the immediate tools to apply in that context.
  • Behavioural changes & interventions: The micro format also lends itself well to building context around, and placing learners in, situations and scenarios. This is a type of experiential learning, which is a powerful pedagogical tool. Thus, the Compono Micro Modules ask the learner to demonstrate their learning through a simulated scenario.
6287056aad36c2276e666aee_QWIusXrXeJUH3rJqAPJACaiZb9qV5kTNneT3SFER3PjMAn58jdx6e2YZN4XKrOQG6ItEVdgjZGvYoZ-35RAo3G9jLDLI-aUfNXjGK7kfokU2zmeN-mwUkWARI42Qlq5lbyZgReWj4eMCfiOu9g This simulated scenario can help with changing perceptions and behaviour. It’s well-suited for soft skills training and topics such as inappropriate workplace behaviour and conflict resolution. For example, our Micro Modules include an engaging minute-long animation that introduces the key concepts, validates the learner’s own understanding or perspective and activates their prior knowledge in the area, thus priming them for the learning experience and motivating behaviour change.
  • Performance support tool or job aid: Let’s imagine you have a leaky tap in your kitchen. Are you going to enrol in a plumbing course to solve the problem, or would you rather watch a 5-minute YouTube tutorial to help you solve the issue?  If your employees need very technical information on hand or details which they don’t need for a specific need and won’t need to remember later, microlearning is a great solution. 

By now, you should have a good idea of the benefits of microlearning, but what does a well-designed program look like? A good microlearning course:

  • is a principled approach based on learning and brain science
  • is media-rich and 3-6 minutes long (remember Cognitive Load Theory and working memory?)
  • focuses on narrow topics with 1-2 learning objectives that provide 4 or 5 key takeaways
  • slots in into someone’s daily workflow naturally 
  • focuses on actionable just-in-time or need-to-know content
  • is not the most appropriate option for deep learning, however
  • could complement a larger suite or curriculum which is aimed at deeper learning.
Structuring a microlearning program: 

As with any learning experience, context is king and no two microlearning courses will look exactly the same. Nevertheless, there are certain key questions10 we can ask when designing a microlearning module.  

  1. What is the problem you’re trying to solve? How will solving this problem benefit the learner and the business?
  2. How will learners bridge the gap from their current performance to where they need to be?
  3. How can this be achieved in 3-6 minutes? (Clue: if it can’t, microlearning is probably not the solution). 
  4. What information is good, or nice to know, and what is essential or need-to-know (cut out the nice-to-know fluff). 
  5. How will you measure whether this learning solution worked? 
Little by Little

Let’s apply this to my intended behaviour change of daily pushups after handwashing that I mentioned earlier. I was clearly trying to solve the problem of my middle-aged dad body losing muscle mass (and ensuing flagging self-esteem). How would I know if my intervention of daily pushups worked? Well, the mirror doesn’t lie and with increased strength comes increased daily pushups, a very measurable goal.  Thus far, I’ve stuck with it and often end up doing around 50 pushups a day which goes to prove the effectiveness of taking small incremental improvements (as well as my adherence to hand hygiene). It seems a lot to be said for small steps and there’s an African proverb which is as applicable to microlearning as it is to my pushup endeavours (and many other facets of life, in fact): “Little by little, a little becomes a lot”. 

Want to explore further? eLearning Industry has a great range of Microlearning eBooks for a deeper dive into the topic. 

Compono has designed a series of just-in-time style microlearning modules aimed at employees who need to do something “right now”. Each module has a seat time of under 10 minutes so learners can easily incorporate them into their daily workflow.  Contact us to find out more