What Is Microlearning

Microlearning Guide Page
Dear Reader, welcome to RapL’s consideration of microlearning. Like the evergreen story of blind men and the elephant, microlearning is also interpreted in numerous ways.
What is microlearning

Before we bind various pieces of the microlearning puzzle together, we should look at some ways in which microlearning influences social well-being and corporate excellence.

Case #1

Controlling cost overruns in Norwegian public construction projects using microlearning (source)

Public construction organizations are heavily dependent on continuous exchange of applied knowledge and learning. This helps them achieve multiple business objectives. 

Projects are their operational backbone. Each successfully completed project is a book of learning. 

In this case study, Norwegi, a public construction company responsible for construction spending of 7.2 billion NOK, wanted to focus on reducing costs. They had already identified the root cause 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 researcher developed a series of microlearning lessons. Seven lessons were created, each focusing on one aspect of the topic. Poignant and clear language, as well as good illustrations or images, were important. Some lessons also contained a short video clip (30–60 seconds). 

Microlearning Formats

Video and sound enhanced the user experience, along with subtitles.

The threshold for starting a lesson was kept as low as possible. The lessons can be accessed directly via the link from the invitation email. When the participants had completed a lesson, a page showed. The page indicated if there were any lessons they had not completed.

The reaction of 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 course, 91% of the participants evaluated the microlearning course as relevant for them.

Following are some hot takes on the definition of microlearning, espoused by researchers and academics:

Carla Togerson, Head of Learning Experience Strategy at the award-winning L & D consulting firm Torrancelearning, explains:

“Microlearning is learning content that can be consumed in less than 300 seconds.”

Theo Hug, a renowned author and authority on all things microlearning, has this to say: “Microlearning is an expression of a specific perspective. Unlike meso and macro aspects, it 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 defined as:

“Microlearning is an instructional unit that provides a short engagement in an activity intentionally designed to elicit a specific outcome from the participant”
Microlearning - The Three Components

Here is a quick overview of the three key components of this definition. They are: “instructional unit,” “short engagement” and “specific results.

Instruction Unit – A learning unit packed with an instruction-led construct. These instructions are self-sufficient in texture. When you add or subtract an idea from this instruction, its usefulness fades. 

Short Engagement – Most microlearning exercises are designed to be completed within minutes of start. The average is 2 to 10 minutes.

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

Sample Microlearning Card

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

Case #2

Controlling cost overruns in Norwegian public construction projects using microlearning (source)

Researchers in India showed a risk reduction in educating a group of pre-diabetic Indian men about the importance of eating right and exercising. A risk reduction of 36% was observed in the chances of them becoming diabetic. This group was trained with a core microlearning instrument. They were provided a periodic mobile phone message reminding them to eat right and exercise. The control group with the same sample size of pre-diabetic men was not exposed to any education, micro or otherwise.

Here’s to microlearning to improve the social health index!

Microlearning Principles

Like all forms of learning, microlearning also derives its roots in the following fundamental questions:

Which learning domain am I trying to influence?

Microlearning as a construct of learning domains:

This is a good way to dive into the various learning areas that each training exercise aims to influence. Different learning areas are: cognitive, affective and psychomotor. At RapL, we serve customers who have an impact on everyone. A brief explanation of these areas and their intersection with microlearning is important to establish microlearning principles.

Microlearning Domains

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 highly complex tasks. A list of learning characteristics is essential to successfully perform these tasks. 

One such universally 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.

Bloom’s Taxonomy

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 Term Definition Appropriate for Microlearning Example
Knowledge Express an understanding of a subject by recalling from memory Yes i) “Watch this short video on the dietary needs of a German Shepherd.”
ii)“Next, take the quiz to claim the ‘expert’ badge”
Comprehension Organize learnings, compare and contrast ideas, and summarize concepts Yes “In less than 30 words, explain why X is better than Y”
Application Apply learnings in diverse scenarios Yes “An irate customer wants to know about the process to cancel her subscription. She says that most of the content that 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?”
Analysis Build 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?”
Synthesis A new creation by utilizing existing information No “Build an annual GTM plan for the enterprise software division of Acme Inc.”
Evaluation Decide a future course of action based on past experiences and intellectual computations No “The Board of Directors of Acme Inc. have shifted focus from growth to profitable unit economics for the current FY. 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, comprehension, application and analysis.

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

The Affective Domain

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. It also helps them remember both the approach of change and the associated devices required to act on it.

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

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

2: Responding: This is the phase after receiving. Here, individuals respond to the “receiving” stimulus through questions, creative discussions, debates or mere facial expressions. Such a skill helps build interpersonal relationships and a social quotient. This determines larger attitudes in general.

3: Valuing: All this receiving and responding creates a series of continuously evolving values. This results from the analysis and internalization of these exchanges. Expressing these values is a deliberate process. It helps showcase the ideas and events that individuals admire or not.

4: Organizing: When multiple values clash, people choose to arrange. They may arrange them like files in a 90s cabinet. Frequently used values take precedence over others. The others that are evoked less often are tightly retained. Each individual has uniquely held values for all the key factors in the world. The making values seem like DNA. 

5: Characterizing: The final leg of the characterization is the stage when individuals start evangelizing the said behavior. They deliberately position themselves as the purveyor of the said values.

Here is a look at how a regular POSH training exercise can be divided into Krathwohl’s hierarchy and its associated microlearning applications

Krathwohl’s Term Definition Appropriate for Microlearning Example
Receiving A participant’s willingness to listen and an ability to hear others out Yes A POSH training video
Responding The phase where individuals respond to the ‘receiving’ stimulus by questions, creative discussions, debates or mere facial expressions Yes Scenario based micro quizzes on POSH principles
Valuing All this receiving and responding creates a set of continuously evolving values that are an outcome of analyzing and internalizing these exchanges. Yes High-level quiz that factors multiple scenarios and certifies the participant on all key POSH aspects
Organizing When multiple (and sometimes conflicting) values collide, individuals resort to organizing them, like files in a 90s cabinet Yes Asking a participant to recap all her interpretations about POSH through a voice note
Characterizing Characterization is the stage when individuals start evangelizing the said behavior and deliberately positions herself as the purveyor of the said values No Participant voluntarily signs up to create post course reinforcement content for other employees

The Psychomotor Domain

The psychomotor field is central to our understanding of how we demonstrate physical capabilities in an everyday construct. Learning to drive your first car is a prime example of the psychomotor domain. 

Like the cognitive and affective domains, the psychomotor domain 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. 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 the presence of any guidance No Nailing the driver’s test to get your license.
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. Namely, cognitive, affective and psychomotor.
  • Microlearning is appropriate for some stages of mastery in the three domains. It may not be appropriate for all stages.

Uses of Microlearning

We have now understood that microlearning has different applications in cognitive, affective and psychomotor learning. Now, it is essential that we build on these basic concepts. It will help better understand 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 results are one of the four categories. Like supplementation, strengthening, strengthening or remediation. 

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

2: Strengthen learning: Regular use of training material is crucial for successfully executing tasks. It also helps demonstrate skills used many times.

3: Augment learning: There are inaccurate ways where ‘augment’ and ‘supplement’ are used as synonyms. Augmentation cannot be more different from supplementation. Regular learning interventions should greatly improve the understanding of a topic. The first time participants process it, it is not improved. Supplementing is used to describe a process. Here, an existing conceptual deficiency is overcome by providing additional information and context to a participant.

4: Remediate performance: Remediation requires 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, we dry some digital ink that explores the various use cases that are ripe for microlearning

Microlearning Use Cases

There are 6 predominant clusters of microlearning use cases. They find majority applications in a learning calendar. A tabular representation highlights each use case with an elaboration. It comes with a corresponding work scenario that accelerates learning outcomes. It also accompanies a contextual example. This helps you 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. They should revolve around repeated business scenarios that participants gloss over as irrelevant. 

For example, project managers at Acme Inc, a manufacturer of Direct To Consumer coffee products, face business risks in everyday operations. The risk can be attributed to many sources. Changeability in raw materials is one of them. If such risk is not properly managed, there are severe implications on the top and bottom line. 

Risk management is an essential trait for success in Acme’s project. 

The following table highlights how trainers can effectively leverage pensive microlearning. It also helps understand how to build risk-free processes.

Pensive Microlearning

Use Case 2: Performance Microlearning

Performance-centric microlearning is a form of interference. It helps a participant finish a task in real time. Such an example 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.

For example, a printed list of objections for front-line sales representatives in a cosmetics store. It is a prime example of performance microlearning. They can choose to look up the list if they are relatively new to the job. They might choose to refresh their neural pathways 6 months into the job. The common thread is that both sets want to stay fresh with their responses to common objections. It is an everyday performance ask.Performance microlearning can complement, reinforce and enhance learning.

Let’s revisit the learning landscape at Acme Inc. It is our familiar D2C coffee brand. They successfully completed the risk management training. They now want to familiarize their marketing team with all the ingredients behind the production of their much-known “Geisha coffee mix.” This is an important exercise. Their advertising stories rely on educating buyers about these ingredients. Without a microlearning exercise, it would be difficult for the team to appreciate the mix.

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

Performance Microlearning

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 tried to convince them. 

Convince for what? Behavioral change.

That’s right. All convincing microlearning is initiated to change existing behaviors. This helps make way for more favorable behaviors. Augmentation and remediation are the most effective results of convincing microlearning.

Acme Inc. took stock of risk factors and helped marketing teams be experts in their ingredient mix. This helped them understand that their baristas were not accustomed to receiving feedback from customers about their experience. The baristas were trained around this key SOP principle. The problem was that this key detail was explained to them just once in their orientation. Glossing over such crucial feedback points hindered Acme’s efforts to get closer to its customers.

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

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

Persuasion Microlearning

Use Case 4: Post-Instruction Microlearning

Micro-learning after instruction summarizes the key principles of a larger training exercise. For example, classroom training, and atomizes key learning takeaways. Think of this as a refresher course. Participants can engage with them 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. has secured an executive buy-in. It is used to drive an ‘ethical sourcing’ policy. Under this policy, Acme Inc. will only work with farmers and manufacturers who agree to maintain a predetermined standard of ethical treatment for raw materials. Like cocoa, tea and coffee.

Post-instruction microlearning finds a tight application here. 7 days of classroom training and Zoom conferences on the key clauses of an ethical procurement checklist is a great way to ensure that employees effectively remember the standards. It is a post-instruction reinforcement exercise.

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

Post-Instruction Microlearning

Use Case 5: Practice-Based Microlearning

Practice-based microlearning is specially designed to help participants practice a teaching unit. This leads to the development of a specific skill after training. It usually involves building several denominations of skill units. Each of which can be practiced repeatedly until it penetrates a participant’s neural pathways finely.

Practice-based microlearning improves, reinforces and corrects actions and behaviours core. It helps successfully perform the skill.

Acme Inc. has an army of auditors who work as a global unit. In many non-USA geographies, GAAP is not the standard accounting practice. Acme consolidates all earnings and reports it under a combined financial statement. New auditors who join Acme in non-USA geographies need to be experts in GAAP. It helps consistent accounting standards prevail. A practice-based microlearning approach could help them reinforce major accounting principles by practicing GAAP fundamentals. It can be practiced on sample balance sheets in quizzes.

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

Practice-Based Microlearning

Use Case 6: Preparatory Microlearning 

Preparatory microlearning is a pre-training engagement. It warms participants up 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.

We hope that the authors in RapL’s research labs can guide you to the basic principles of microlearning. We believe this document is a thorough primer on getting your hands right. It will take you from defining microlearning to elaborating on its principles and applications. This is a work-in-progress guide. We often add new chapters to this resource.

Thanks for being with us all the way here.

Dear reader, thanks for being with us all the way till the end. We suggest 2 things from here

1. Speak to us if you want a microlearning strategy deep-dive: Microlearning is extremely effective, if approached sensibly. Microlearning is the answer to today’s shortening attention spans and we know how to make learning successful via microlearning. Drop your context here and we shall partner with you for the rest.

2. Lap up more content: We have written some intense literature on how microlearning is the superglue between people and successful business operations. Access all of it here.

Get in touch

Our team of experts would love to show how RapL can elevate your workforce with measurable results in a few weeks.