Learning Myth #3: Overhyping and Misapplying Microlearning

Some Q&A about microlearning:

Q: Is microlearning a myth?

A: No.

Q: Is it being hyped by everyone in the learning community?

A: Definitely.

Q: Is it being overhyped by many in the learning community?

A: For sure.

Q: Is it being applied effectively to maximize learning and learning retention?

A: Often, no.

What Problems Does Microlearning Solve?

Microlearning solves the learner disengagement problem. There is strong evidence that learners disengage from on-line courses after a relatively short period of time. Philip Guo, from the University of Rochester, analyzed the average length of time learners viewed courses on edX, a popular MOOC. What he found was that learners’ attention began to drop off after approximately 10 minutes:


Secondly, microlearning addresses a significant limitation of human working memory. It is very easily overloaded (cognitive load theory). Recent research suggests that we can only process three to four discrete pieces of information at a time.

What Problem Doesn’t Microlearning Solve?

We know from decades of research that up to 80% of what is learned in a course is forgotten within 30 days. In an earlier blog post, (Learning Myth #1: The Ebbinghaus Forgetting Curve) we argued that there is not a single forgetting curve, but a series of forgetting curves dictated by a number of factors:


Our goal is to prevent our learners from descending down the steepest level of the Forgetting Curve.

What about a five- or ten-minute microlearning nugget? Will that be remembered in 30 days? The answer is no. Microlearning on its own does not inoculate the learner from forgetting any better than a traditional learning event.

So, how do we use microlearning to move the learner “up” onto the less steep forgetting curves? Something more is needed. We need microlearning strategies that encourage long term retention. Here are four:

  • Spaced repetition — the key word here is repetition
  • Retrieval practice – require the learner to retrieve earlier learning and then re-encode the learning to strengthen neural connections
  • Targeted remediation – directly address a learning gap with a targeted microlesson
  • Moment of need availability – solve an immediate problem and the solution will be remembered

In practical terms how can these strategies be implemented? Here are three methods:

Learning Subscriptions: Learning Subscriptions provide a means for distributing microlearning nuggets over time and, most important, the ability to repeat certain key nuggets (spaced repetition). Subscriptions can also have interspersed questions to encourage retrieval practice. For more on Learning Subscriptions see our earlier blog post: Making Microlearning Effective Using Learning Subscriptions.

Personalized Microlearning: All learners have learning gaps. Microlearning is an excellent means to target those gaps (targeted remediation). When learning gaps are detected by means of an assessment, a narrowly focused microlesson targeted specifically at the individual learner will be better remembered over time, especially if the learner is required to recall and apply that knowledge in a subsequent follow-up assessment.

On-demand Catalogues: An employee has a work problem that needs to be solved, quickly. If he/she can find an immediate answer in an on-demand microlesson catalogue at the moment of need that lesson will stick over the long term.

Microlearning has great promise to solve many learning and retention problems, but to use it effectively you must move beyond the hype and apply what we know about the science of learning.

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