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Microlearning: A Pathway to Effective Training Retention and Behavioral Change

Written by: Dr. Jiani Wu

Feb 06, 2021

Microlearning Blog Header

Carefully-designed microlearning modules makes information easier to digest and support employee behavioral change over time. 

It can also be gamified to boost employee engagement and community building. 

And yet, designing a microlearning module is more than chunking materials into short pieces. Effective microlearning modules require systematic design and process.

This article will bring you on a journey to explore factors that impact learning, best practice of microlearning, key components of microlearning modules and ways to gamify microlearning–all based on my decades of research and consulting practice in learning design. 

I’ve also partnered with Venngage, the simple design solution for learning and development, to provide you templates so you can easily create your own microlearning modules.

What impacts learning?

Training at its core is not only cognitive change but also behavioral change. 

The process of learning is simplified into three steps: 

  1. Learners intake sensory information through various senses, such eyes and ears. 
  2. They process this sensory information in their short term or working memory. 
  3. Through various opportunities to make meaning of the learned information and practice information in various contexts to identify patterns, learners will code such information into long-term memory and truly learn the information. 

Information Processing Model for microlearning


Factors such as limited working memory, “forgetting curve” and short attention span impact learning.

Training, such as webinars, workshops, and e-learning modules, tend to focus on sensory and short-term processing. This bias forces learners to pile most of the information in the short term or working memory.

Related: How to Create a Successful Employee Training and Development Program Using Visuals

Unlike long-term memory, which has nearly unlimited capacity, short term or working memory only has limited capacity. When information is beyond its capacity, learners get cognitive overloaded and training effectiveness drops.

Research showed that learning effectiveness is the highest in the first five minutes and drops dramatically after 15 minutes (Burns,1985). And for a 16 minutes video, participants will only process information from the first three minutes (Guo, Kim & Rubin, 2014).

In addition to the limitation of working memory, learning is also impacted by the “forgetting curve” and short attention span. After we have learned something new, how much do you think we can still remember tomorrow? Most of it? Probably not. 

Hermann Ebbinghaus, a German psychologist, discovered that we usually remember 20 percent on the next day. He called it the “forgetting curve.” 

forgetting curve - microlearning


Moreover, we now have a shorter attention span. The average song length on the Billboard Hot 100 now is around 3.5 minutes. Some hit songs are even shorter, around 2.5 minutes. 

In a traditional classroom, an adult learner’s attention span maxes at 18 minutes (Murphy, 2008). In an online learning environment, the attention span will be much shorter due to multitasking and distractions (Rothman, 2016). We may tune into a recorded session or scan through an article while looking up websites, jogging, cooking, or waiting in line .

Microlearning is a modern approach to overcome those challenges.

What is microlearning? A definition

Microlearning delivers short and focused content bites at various intervals, such as days, weeks or months. Such spaced repetition effectively overcome memory loss caused by the “forgetting curve.” 

projected forgetting curves - microlearning


Managers usually prefer microlearning because it provides on-demand and up-to-date information and training. 

Effective microlearning always fits well into people’s daily workflow and motivates them to engage with it voluntarily. Ultimately, it shapes how people think and behave (Dolasinski & Reynolds, 2020). 

Microlearning best practices

An effective micro learning unit usually lasts no more than three to five minutes (Fox, 2016; Dolasinski & Reynolds, 2020) and fits naturally into the daily workflow. It also motivates employees to engage with it voluntarily and progressively adapt the content to support employees’ behavioral change that impacts specific business results. 

Each microlearning module usually is used in combination with a series of other microlearning modules over a period of time to support a larger training goal (Kapp & Defelice, 2019). 

You can use each microlearning module:

  • Before the major training event to gradually prepare employees
  • After the training event to support continued practice and performance. 
  • To facilitate deep reflections or persuade people to adopt an idea or way of thinking. 

Training departments can also use knowledge management strategies to tag, index, and store microlearning modules in learning management systems for on-demand user access, updating and referencing. 

Make sure to title each module correctly in specific topics. With accurate titles and tagging systems, you will be able to access each microlearning module when critical needs arise for long-term performance support. 

Key elements of a microlearning module

A microlearning module usually consists of four key elements: Micro learning objectives (MLO), Micro learning content (MLC), Micro learning delivery (MLD) and Micro learning evaluation (MLE).

Key elements of a microlearning module

1. Microlearning objectives (MLO)

Microlearning objectives (MLO) needs to be simple, direct and specific. 

For example, you are building a micro unit to train people to identify and evaluate risks. Instead of “Safety Training,” you can specify it as “Safety Training – Risk Assessment.” 

With specific titles and micro learning objectives, you can help distracted learners focus in time-compressed workplaces. You can also accurately index micro learning topics for future on-demand training. 

2. Microlearning content (MLC) 

Microlearning content (MLC) contains the core training information and activities. Try to focus on one key idea plus three supporting subtopics for each micro unit. 

For example, “Safety Training- Risk Assessment-Identify the hazards” can be the core idea. Three major steps to identify hazards are supporting subtopics.   

Remember, our working memory can only process limited information at once. Focusing on a single idea with supporting points will help our brain better process and integrate the training.

3. Microlearning delivery (MLD) 

Different content commands different formats of media.

Besides articles and PowerPoints, videos are the most popular delivery method currently. 

  • A tutorial video is most effective if you want to train a particular process or series of steps to complete a task. 
  • A training video usually involves real people to train soft skills in the workplace, such as compliance, harassment, or communication training. 
  • A screencast video is usually used to communicate a quick idea or solve a specific question. 
  • A lecture video such as TED talks is used to deliver general knowledge to a large audience. 

Infographics and podcasts are also common delivery formats for microlearning modules. 

Infographics, in particular, can enhance appeal, comprehension, and learning retention. It can visualize processes and guide learn-to-learner discussions or feedback practices (Ott, et al., 2014; Vanichvasin, 2013; Nuhoğlu, 2017)

Diversity and Inclusion Terminology Infographic Template for microlearning

Related: How to Use eLearning Infographics (Tips & Templates)

Besides media choices, you can phrase information in terms of questions or mix information in unexpected ways to help engage learners and improve retention. 

Moreover, it is important to consider the environment when someone is doing micro learning (Gottfredson & Mosher, 2011). Will people learn it when they feel stressful? Will they learn it when they are doing other things? 

To help position our learners in an optimal environment for learning, we can add a few tips. For example, try to watch this micro lesson in a quiet and warm space, with minimum distractions and some calming music.

Related: How to Easily Create Job Aid Infographics That Improve Employee Performance

4. Microlearning evaluation (MLE)

The final piece is evaluation. The ultimate goal for a microlearning unit is behavioral change. Activity, context and feedback are key for this purpose. 

For example, you are creating activities for “Safety Training – Risk Assessment.” The goal for those activities is to enable people to learn how to identify and evaluate risks and decide whether or not it is worth taking the safer route. 

A simple activity is to provide them with a workplace scenario and ask them to write down what they think the best decision is and why. Then, they can provide feedback in terms of the decision process. Provide another common workplace scenario and go through the practice and feedback process again. 

With multiple feedback for various common scenarios, people will improve their risk-based decision making performance. In order to provide effective feedback, rubrics are essential. 

Ideally, data from the learner, facilitator, participants and supervisor or observers can be combined and analyzed. Such data includes length of time from microtraining to action demonstration, how well new micro skills are implemented, continued challenges, etc. 

All these data can help determine the effectiveness of microlearning modules and identify modifications for future. 

Microlearning trends: how to gamify microlearning

To gamify a microlearning module is to use game attributes (Bedwell, et al., 2012; Landers, 2014) to enhance target behaviors or attitudes. 

A few key game attributes are narrative, rules, goals and progress, inter-action, assessment, conflict, control and collaboration. 

microlearning and gamification

Narrative refers to the overarching story. The story provides a general background of the game scenario, such as who is the major character, where he or she is, what is the major challenge, and potential solution to overcome the challenge. 

Rules specify what to do and what not to do and how to do things. 

Goals indicate the ultimate purpose and provide information on progress toward the goals. 

Inter-action refers to the ability of participants to perform specific tasks within the learning platform. 

Assessment refers to how the progresses and accomplishments are tracked. A most common assessment is the use of points. 

Conflict refers to various challenges and competitions along the way. 

Control refers to the ability for a participant to change the direction of the path. For example, if the participant performs a particular task or decision, he or she will obtain additional support for the next task. 

Collaboration refers to the opportunity for participants to work with each other and report on progresses. 

Ideally, to gamify any microlearning modules, supportive technology platforms are needed. You may also need to use multiple microlearning modules sequentially to scaffold the process, like this one pager describes.

5 Steps Elearning Plan Process Infographic Template

Microlearning gamification: an example

For example, if we want to turn “Safety Training – Risk Assessment” into a gamified micro learning module, we can use attributes such as narrative, rules, goals and progress, inter-action, assessment, conflict, control and collaboration. 

  1. For narrative, we can provide a background story about a hero or heroine who works in a mask factory and notices that the factory’s production time is getting longer and starting to have serious delays. Such delay has caused a big shortage in the market during COVID time, leaving millions of people facing life threatening risks. 
  2. His or her goal is to identify the causes and make improvement on production time so more people can get protected. 
  3. The rule says that he or she needs to find out the causes without exposing workers to an unsafe environment. The time allowed is limited. 
  4. The progress consists of 5 microlearning modules. There can be a visual bar indicating the progress of the player/learner. 
  5. A simple inter-action can be a set of quizzes. The player/learner can receive and analyze information and input answers for each quiz. 
  6. As for assessment, whenever the player/learner scores a quiz, he or she will receive certain points. The system keeps track of those points. 
  7. You can increase the level of conflict or challenge by making the situation more complicated and quizzes harder as they progress through the modules. 
  8. As for control, when the player/learner unlocks each microlearning module, he or she will receive extra help or support from the modules, such as receiving more hints. 
  9. The player/learner can also collaborate with co-workers to analyze and solve the problems together. 
  10. For the final module, he or she will complete the final quiz. The results will show whether or not he or she has completed the mission successfully.

In summary: choose the right microlearning strategy for your learning objectives

Next time when you want to create a microlearning module, ask yourself these questions to guide your design and implement process:

1. What purpose do you need the microlearning module to achieve?

  • To prepare for a major training event? 
  • To enhance performance change after a major training? 
  • To facilitate reflection? 
  • To persuade an idea? 

2. How many microlearning modules do you plan to create? How many days, weeks, months do you plan to space them out?

3. How do you want to design each microlearning module?

What are the microlearning objectives (MLO), microlearning content (MLC), microlearning delivery (MLD), and microlearning evaluation (MLE)?

4. Do you plan to gamify microlearning modules?

  • What is the technology capacity? 
  • How do you plan to integrate game elements, such as narrative, rules, goals and progress, inter-action, assessment, conflict, control, and collaboration?

5. Do you plan to build a library to host all the microlearning modules? 

  • What is your strategy for titles? How do you plan to organize and index them?
  • How would people find them on-demand in future when needs arise?

To sum up, microlearning is a great learning design solution for training managers to deliver on-demand training over a period of time to enhance training retention, facilitate behavior change, and support long-term employee performance. 

Need better training materials that engage employees? Venngage is the simple but powerful design tool for business communication. No design experience is required. Plus, it’s free to sign up.

About Dr. Jiani Wu

Dr. Jiani is currently working on Micro Adaptive Gamified Inclusive Collaborative (MAGIC) Model, where she is designing a system to transform any curriculum into a personalized learning experience. Her passion is to create high quality learning experiences and she actively conducts learning design consultations for organizations such as the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Boston Children’s Hospital, Boston University, MIT Open Learning, MassChallenge, and LearnLaunch.