Ways Microlearning Increases Attention And Retention
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How Microlearning Increases Attention And Retention

Microlearning is currently a hot topic in eLearning, and for good reason. It works. Breaking instruction down to small digestible chunks that can be accessed anywhere, at any time, makes sense because, among many other things, it addresses keeping the attention of the learner and subsequent retention of the information learned.

Attention Spans Are Lessening

If you can’t capture and keep the attention of the learner: Game Over.

People have less of an attention span than a goldfish, according to a Microsoft study from 2015 which shows that a goldfish can stay interested in something for nine seconds while people, on average, clock in at 8 seconds, which is down from 12 seconds in 2000 and getting shorter all the time. This is not news. In 1890, William James, an American Psychologist, wrote, "There is no such thing as voluntary attention sustained for more than a few seconds at a time".

Popular culture confirms this. A study of 13,000 films showed that in the 1930’s and 1940’s the average scene in a movie was around 12 seconds. This has lessened to 2.5 seconds. On YouTube, a 12-minute video is watched for about 3 minutes until the viewer clicks on something else. The most popular videos clock in at an average of 4 minutes 20 seconds and contain a lot of motion. There are literally millions of how-to videos on YouTube and they average about 3 minutes.

Microlearning has been found to be most effective at no more than 5 minutes using less than 500 words with interaction and assessment built into that time frame. If a learner is asked to do something, they must be paying attention and the attention clock resets.

Microlearning Is The Answer

Microlearning addresses the needs, the motivation, and the style of the learner. If someone is a morning person, they will be far less attentive if the instruction is given at night. If someone needs to know something at a particular point in time, they will be very attentive and motivated. Just-in-time learning is a powerful concept. If used correctly, attention will be paid, a concept learned, and the learner can get on with a task.
The idea of one concept, taught quickly and efficiently, with learner interaction and assessment, such as a quiz, is applicable to any type of learning from corporate training to academia. In fact, it’s applicable to learn how to do anything in all walks of life. Realizing a need, getting an answer, and getting on with it, is the basis of all search engines, and applying that concept to learning seems to be painfully obvious.

Let’s apply this concept to a dry corporate training manual comprising 20 pages of text. It would be possible to break this down into many bite-sized chunks of microlearning given a starting hierarchical menu. This would be quite effective since people have different learning styles and a strictly linear approach won’t work for many. Additionally, the written version of a lecture will have minds wandering in next to no time. Assessment at the end of the training will most likely be failed on the first go and force the learner to go back and not read but cherry-pick the text for the right answers just to finish the task and be done. This is the worst possible case for learning since, in fact, little is learned.

Compare that with the same thing done as microlearning. If the learning is objective and hierarchically based, the modules can be grouped by objective and the learner cannot access the second objective module until the first objective is assessed and successfully completed. This may provide a dozen or more modules that can be taken at any time, on any device, and anywhere the learner decides to take it. If the instruction must be completed in a set period of time, say a week, the number of modules can be shown out front, with a progress bar showing the level of completion. Without such information, the learner can get hopelessly behind and be forced to hurry up and take it all in at the same time, learning nothing. Time is a motivator and the antithesis of learning.

Microlearning Aids Retention

The classic learning pyramid shows that the following modes of presentation provide the following amounts of learning:

  • 5% Lecture
  • 10% Reading
  • 20% Audio-visual
  • 30% Demonstration
  • 50% Discussion
  • 75% Practice doing
  • 90% Teaching others

Lectures obviously don’t work. If time were brought into it, it would be found that every 5 minutes from the end of the lecture, less and less is retained. The information is only given once and either you get it, or you don’t. Reading is better since at least you can go at your own pace and go back to review material not gleaned the first time. But both modes hardly work at all. Audio-visual is slightly better but gets better still when used in conjunction with demonstration and practice. It would be most helpful if the learner is encouraged to become a micro-Subject Matter Expert and teach the one concept to someone else, further reinforcing retention.

Another virtue of microlearning toward retention is that all the modules are available for later review. If a concept is fuzzy and needs clarification, it will be easy to go back and view it again. Keeping all of this mobile-compatible is critical, since people don’t walk around with their computers, but everyone has a feature cell phone. Pulling it out of one’s pocket when needed is a great benefit and keeping all training on the phone is even better. If a number of training courses are completed, over time retention wanes, and being able to go back and review a concept from a few months ago invites retention.

Our culture is quite used to pulling out a phone and getting what information is needed, and microlearning is jumping on that bandwagon by not instituting something foreign or anything that takes any training of how to get at the coursework. At the same time, microlearning empowers the learner by making a learner autonomous and instills a sense of being trusted to learn the concepts without a teacher or classroom.

Attention and retention are 2 powerful benefits of microlearning, but the benefits hardly stop there. On the administrative side, it’s easy to update a module and send out an update. This saves time and money since it’s much cheaper than starting from scratch. Although it may be costly to create microlearning, the expenditure is easily amortized by the ease and cost savings of updating.

These are just a few of the benefits of microlearning. This is just scratching the surface of why this ever more prevalent mode of instruction has gained so much traction to date and has been so well embraced by the training community.

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