Microlearning Guide

Microlearning: A Complete Guide

by Becton Loveless

What is Microlearning?

In a world where new instructional processes are continuously being developed, there remain a few truths. First, student engagement is key to successful outcomes. Second, attention span is limited. Third, engagement and attention span are inherently related, and good instruction helps keep students focused by raising engagement. As a result, shorter, focused lessons can often be more helpful than longer ones during which students will inevitably lose focus.

Microlearning is designed to deliver a ton of content in a short timespan in order to maximize engagement and, subsequently, learning. Microlearning comes in a variety of flavors. Some microlearning involves learning single activities. Other microlessons take the form of learning units that have been condensed to their core elements. The important part of microlearning is that lessons deliver a burst of content. This is helpful for students both in the classroom and at home. In the classroom, small units can be completed rapidly that can then inform larger, more in-depth lessons. However, microlearning can be helpful in the home as well. It's just easier for students to take a microlesson and review the material while they're on their own. Because the material is shorter, it's psychologically less overwhelming for the student.

In many ways, micro learning is not much different from traditional lessons. Rather, microlearning involves taking traditional lessons and condensing and optimizing them for delivery in a short timespan. This means that microcontent can include all the same educational content, including lessons delivered with text, images, video, audio, and games. Teachers can also more easily put microlessons onto the internet. Smaller lessons are easier to plan, easier to translate into a format that can be delivered online (through learning platforms, video, or other media), and easier to upload. Using this approach, teachers can extend their lessons beyond the classroom without the difficulty associated with uploading extremely large files.

Microlearning is effective specifically because it relies on basic human fundamentals to deliver instruction. Smaller lessons are easier to digest, and knowledge gained can be more easily reviewed. The more a person repeats and uses information, the more likely they are to retain what they've learned in the long term. Microlearning takes advantage of the fact that smaller chunks are easier to review and repeat. Using this approach, students are less likely to experience cognitive overload, a phenomenon in which a person has tried to learn too much too fast. This overload of information actually leads to a reduction in learning. At any given time, a person can only learn so much, and trying to pass natural human limits means learners start to acquire new information even as old information is being forgotten. Microlearning is an effective way of avoiding this since it emphasizes reinforcing what has already been learned before new information is acquired.

Designing a Microlearning Lesson

For the teacher who has never previously designed a microlearning lesson, it may be difficult to know how to begin creating these smaller approaches to learning. First, microlessons need to be presented as a part of the larger context. Teachers should provide a broad overview of the learning goals for students over the next few days and provide context for what the student will be learning during their smaller lessons.

After providing context, the next step in designing such lessons is to remember the goal is to learn discrete information that, while contributing to larger lessons, can stand alone. Within one lesson, a student must have grasped a single objective. Learning objectives are anything the learner must know by the time the lesson is over. Instead of complicating these small lessons with multiple objectives, have students focus on only one. Even if the student is only learning vocabulary, for example, these vocabulary terms can be group into related terms and present in only small amounts that can be learned within ten minutes.

One way in which teachers enhance their microlessons is through video, which helps raise the level of engagement for the student. If you're planning to enhance the lesson with media, such as video, it's important to make sure that these videos are kept to a minimal length. Learning through video should occur in less than four minutes. Instead of presenting video that goes through a lot of time to introduce the student to the larger context, the video should get straight to the point and start addressing the learning objective. As noted before, the teacher should have already provided the larger context into which the lesson fits.

If you're using video during a microlesson, it's important to have students immediately reinforce what they've learned. Video, even when delivered within a few minutes, is a passive process for delivering instruction. In creating a microlesson, it's important to immediately transition people away from the video they've watched to a reinforcing task that can help them actively reinforce what's been learned. This is easier for teachers using computer or device based microlearning software, since programs can be used that blend video and games. However, teachers can also provide handouts to students to use after they've finished viewing a file. Using this approach, teachers can still direct students to short videos on the internet and have students complete related tasks immediately afterward using traditional pen and paper.

Of course, no lesson is complete without some sort of evidence that learning has taken place. It's important to also assess what students have learned. However, when it comes to microlearning, assessments should be as short as the lessons were. Instead of waiting days to assess students about what they've learned over multiple lessons, students should be assesses at the end of every small lesson. A few multiple choice questions will suffice to help gauge what a student has learned over the brief lesson the student has received. Of course, larger tests can still be used once a chapter or section has been completed. What's important is that there are still micro-assessments as the student learns.

Benefits of Microlearning

Microlearning is beneficial for many reasons. The modern era is full of diversions. In the past, people were anchored to the radio or television for distraction. Today, people carry phones that bombard them with advertisements, streaming media, and invitations to join in on social conversations. No more than ever, it's easy for people get distracted.

Microlearning is the perfect response to an era in which distractions are abundant. This form of learning can help people fit in smaller lessons that are retained for longer even when the person is surrounded by many other potential distractions. Young people are adjusted to constantly moving onto something new, from television to games and the internet. Microlearning is appealing to these students because it allows them to apply their modern approach to life to their education.

The numbers are clear about microlearning. Lessons designed to take advantage of the micro approach and applied in bite sized pieces more effectively prepare students to transfer their learning. The transfer of learning refers to a student's ability to transfer what they learn in one context and apply it in a different context. As only one example, what's the advantage of learning how to solve a math problem if you can only do it in the class room? Transfer of learning is important because it allows students to take their learning and apply it elsewhere.

Microlearning is conducive to this transfer. In fact, students who micro learn are 17% more efficient at transferring what they've learned to other contexts. There are several reasons why microlearning helps learners transfer more effectively. First, smaller lessons help learners to more easily approach the material at their own pace. They tend to be better prepared to move onto more complex materials when they're ready to progress. These lessons are often more focused, eliminating any clutter that might hinder the learning process. Comprehension is also aided by the very fact that these lessons are smaller. This combination of smaller material with less clutter help students learn more efficiently and transfer those lessons to other settings.

Another benefit to microlearning? Students enjoy it. The importance of this cannot be underestimated. Students who enjoy their lessons are more engaged, and higher engagement is associated with better learning outcomes. Surveys among students indicated that 94% preferred microlearning to traditional learning. Returning to the topic of engagement, surveys indicated that more than 50% of learners would use learning tools that delivered shorter lessons. Learners considered these shorter courses easier to digest and felt they retained information better over time. For these reasons, engagement was higher among students who were engaged in microlearning.

One final major benefit of learning in shorter stretches is that three to seven minutes of microlearning followed by breaks between other lessons is an ideal match for the working memory capacity of humans as a whole. The human brain is designed to retain focus and learn over shorter periods rather than long ones. People are taught from the childhood the importance of repeating information, for instance. With microlessons, it's easier to repeat materials that have been learned because there's less to cover. People can only focus on tasks for 10 to 15 minutes, with this number getting smaller with younger people. Delivering smaller lessons to people fits their natural tendency to learn in smaller bursts because of hardwired limits to the working memory capacity.

Downsides of Microlearning

Although there are multiple advantages to microlearning, there are also some potential downsides that instructors should be aware of and plan for. Microlessons are fantastic for teaching small, discrete lessons. However, some lessons are best taught as part of a larger picture. Sometimes, lessons can be too discrete and feel unanchored from everything else a person is learning. If an instructor feels it is essential to take a holistic view of what's being taught, then larger lessons may be necessary. If nothing else, it may be important for teachers to provide an appropriate, overarching context in which to frame smaller microlessons.

Microlearning is often employed to learn core terms and concepts. Once these smaller building blocks have been learned though, it may be important for an instructor to provide a larger lesson that ties all these smaller elements together. Whenever there's a large body of material that includes lots of complex, interrelated parts, microlessons may not be suitable. To use history as an example, microlessons could be used to help students learn lots of smaller events that happen during a specific timeframe. For instance, students may learn events that happened over the course of World War II from start to finish. However, teachers would need to go further in depth to tie together all the more complicated political circumstances that drove the war and shaped how it played out. Microlessons may be great for teaching learners about the events on the timeline, but a larger discussion may be necessary to address the motivations behind the war and the underlying factors that determined who won and lost.

Microlessons may also be best suited for tasks, for instance, and not for understanding complex science systems. In such instances, microlessons may be useful for performing valuable tasks in a lab setting. A teacher can then place those small microlessons into a larger context in which people learn about the anatomy of an animal or the potency of different chemicals. Students can then apply smaller skills that they learned about operating in a lab while also keeping in mind the larger lessons their lab work applies to. In both the case of history and science, students learn applicable microlessons that can then be used to better understand lessons in the larger context.

For the educator, microlearning is best considered a part of a larger holistic whole. It's fantastic for helping students understand surface level content that can inform a larger lesson or can be used to understand steps in a process. However, deeper understanding requires more in-depth lessons that may rely on longer instruction. It's best to combine microlearning into existing lessons in order to maximize the value of these shorter lessons.

Takeaway

Microlearning is fundamentally advantageous for learning discrete lessons that can support larger sections of learning. Information learned in small chunks can be more easily used and reinforced, making it more likely for students to retain what they've learned. Students also find shorter lessons more engaging, meaning that they're more likely to retain new information. When designing lessons, teachers should identify information that would be best taught in small chunks. Students can then be given the chance to independently learn these smaller chunks of information. The teacher can provide a larger context for what's been learned and help students understand how those small chunks fit into the bigger overall picture.

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