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Microlearning is A LOT more than smaller content

In microlearning by JD Dillon

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I had the awesome opportunity to join the ATD South Florida Chapter for their Innovative Learning Conference earlier this week. Axonify was one of the event sponsors, and I presented on behalf of the team. My topic: microlearning.

I’ll admit it. I’m not a fan of the term “microlearning.” Trendy terms too often mask the true possibility of a concept in favor of flashy campaigns and empty promises (see “gamification” for another recent example). That said, I’m a HUGE believer in the concept – when done well – and have been leveraging “microlearning” since long before a few inflated marketing budgets established the term. Now that everyone is using the title to promote their ideas, its up to L&D pros to get beyond the hype and make sure this strategy provides real value in the workplace (again, same with gamification).

That was the main point of my presentation. Microlearning is about A LOT more than just making instructional content smaller. Yes, it starts with getting rid of the fluff and chunking content down into more easily-consumed, specifically-focused topics … but then what?

To that end, I presented the components of an effective a microlearning strategy. You can also check out my full presentation (minus proprietary examples) below via SlideShare.

Science of Learning

Your content is smaller, but what do you DO with it? After all, if you edit a long video down into a bunch of shorter videos, you really still have 1 long video – with bathroom breaks.

To drive long-term retention, we must leverage what we know about the science of learning. Microlearning may be “new,” but many of these ideas have been well-established for some time. Here are 3 quick examples:

  • Spaced Repetition: content delivery and practice must be spaced and progressed incrimentally over an extended period to support long-term retention
  • Retrieval Practice: challenging people to recall and apply information is proven to be a more effective way to enable long-term retention than repeated study
  • Confidence-Based Assessment: asking people to gauge their own confidence triggers an emotional response that can assist with long-term retention

We still have PLENTY to learn about how the brain works, and L&D pros should be careful whenever someone pulls the neuroscience card. In the meantime, we should be taking advantage of proven concepts and design for how people really learn (plug for Julie Dirken’s book that goes MUCH deeper into related ideas).

Engagement Methods

So now we want to provide learning opportunities to our employees more often and in smaller increments. But we’re already having trouble getting people to complete a 30-minute eLearning once per month. How can we possibly get them to engage in microlearning sessions for 3 to 5 minutes every day?

First, we must involve employees in our microlearning strategies. Most people haven’t been asked to “learn” this often at work. For most of their lives, formal learning took place in a scheduled location at a specific time (aka classes). We must support this change by sharing the value of structured daily learning, including simple explanations of the scientific principles that are the foundation of microlearning.

Next, we must build engagement strategies that align with our workplace cultures and motivate employees to complete the desired activities. In my ATD presentation, I highlighted Axonify’s use of casual gameplay and game mechanics (aka gamification). For example, we have found that employees who are offered the opportunity to play a casual game as part of a microlearning session engage 51.69% more frequently. The more they participate, the more they learn, which is just common sense. While gamification may not generate the same results in every organization, it can trigger powerful intrinsic and extrinsic motivators and result in more frequent – and fun – learning opportunities (plug for Karl Kapp’s book).


The content is smaller. It’s being made available based on what we know about how people learn. We’re motivating people to engage more frequently. Now what?

One of the reasons microlearning is “a thing” right NOW is the fact that modern technology can really ENABLE the science. Today’s learning tools (cough cough not the standard LMS cough cough) can help us provide the right content to the right person at the right time – as opposed to assigning generic material to large chunks of the employee population. An effective microlearning program takes advantage of adaptive technology and targets individual knowledge gaps that change over time as employees continue to practice with and apply their new knowledge.


Smaller content. Science enabled by technology. Engaged employees. Personalized experiences. Next?

Let’s talk about access. Even if we’re doing everything we’ve discussed so far, its still ineffective to pull people away from their work in order to “learn.” That’s part of the challenge facing L&D teams that rely on old-school methodologies that conflict with the realities of the modern workplace. Microlearning must fit into the employee’s day and support the ongoing learning that’s naturally taking place as they perform their role (yes, that’s a 70/20/10 reference).

Consider the tools and resources employees are already using on the job. For example, if they are using tablets, can those devices also be used to provide microlearning experiences? By now, we should all understand the opportunity mobile devices present to support workplace learning given their capabilities and ubiquity in everyday life. If you don’t have mobile devices in your workplace, what about a BYOD option? POS systems? Desktops? In addition, remember that microlearning doesn’t always require technology – although it definitely can enable more effective, personalized experiences.

Fitting into the employee’s day isn’t just about tools. It’s also about context. We must understand the employee’s workflow and find the right times and/or locations to make learning opportunities available. During my session, I shared an example from Walmart. A large portion of their 75,000 US distribution center employees engage in daily microlearning sessions using PCs that sit right next to the chargers for their forklift batteries. Because they were already required to visit that location, it was a natural fit to insert structured learning into unproductive operational time. Pre and post-shift meetings can also represent an existing and low-tech opportunity to engage employees in bite-sized learning activities.

Real-World Results

Finally, if we’re going to insert chunked learning activities into the workflow more frequently, we have to prove that it works and yields business value. We just have to! Unfortunately, many L&D teams continue to struggle with this value proposition and act based on a “right thing to do” mentality. No, I don’t believe you can measure the ROI of everything L&D can do to support employees. Yes, I believe the impact of microlearning can be measured with business results.

To prove value, microlearning design must start with the end in mind. What business problem are you trying to solve through the acquisition and application of new knowledge? What is the desired OUTCOME? Then, align that outcome with the necessary employee behaviors. What do people have to DO to reach that outcome? In order execute those desired behaviors, what do employees have to KNOW? Lastly, to help improve their knowledge, what CONTENT should we provide?

If you can’t support your learning strategy decisions by answering the question “how will we know it worked?” then what’s the point?

I continue to witness the impact microlearning can have on an organization’s performance, including in my time as an Axonify team member AND my past life as a customer. However, microlearning must be strategically introduced into the learning culture and sustained for maximum impact. By no means is microlearning a silver bullet that can solve all performance problems. But it can become a strong foundational component of a modern learning and performance ecosystem.

Are you interested in or already leveraging microlearning? Besides smaller content, what other components do you feel are essential for microlearning to deliver real value for your employees and organization?

  • JD Dillon is the world’s foremost expert on frontline learning and enablement. He is also one of the most prolific authors and speakers in the workplace learning community. For 20 years, JD has worked in operations and talent development with some of the world’s most dynamic organizations, including Disney, Kaplan and AMC. He is the founder of LearnGeek, a workplace performance advising and insights group. He is also Chief Learning Architect with Axonify, where he builds technology, content and services that enable frontline employees around the world to do their best work every day.