Microlearning, Macrolearning. What Does Research Tell Us?
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What Research Has To Say About Microlearning And Macrolearning

In the child’s tale Goldilocks and the Three Bears, Goldilocks comes to a currently unoccupied house in the woods and decides to break in. (Hello! Illegal!) She decides to help herself to the occupants’ food, chairs, and beds. And proclaims some of them “just right.” Why is it just right? Because it meets her needs. But the other items she tried out were “just right” for the people who lived there. In other words, “just right” is about meeting specific needs.

This is true for instruction also. We must understand people’s needs and what they specifically need to be able to do. In instruction, a one-size-fits-all, regardless of needs, is a sure route to one-size-fits-few and poor training results.

In the last year I have increasingly hear L&D practitioners talk about microlearning like it’s “the answer.” What is it the answer to, exactly? The response: Nearly everything. But knowing that we must create learning experiences that fit specific needs, I felt doubtful. Still, until I understand what the preponderance of research says, my opinion is just a guess based on what I already know. As a result, I set out to learn more and this article sums up what I learned.

What does research say about microlearning? In this article, I’ll offer some definitions of microlearning that offer clues about important aspects and explain what research and researchers have to say about microlearning. I’ll compare what people say are the benefits of microlearning against what we know from research. And I’ll discuss what micro and macro approaches offer workplace learning and how we might use each.

I can sum up much of this article with a specific insight from Professor Christian Glahn at the Hochschule für Technik und Wirtschaft, who studies learning and work:

Microlearning is not the solution to all workplace learning needs.

In a response to Mirjam Neelen and Paul Kirschner’s blog post on microlearning, Glahn explains that microlearning is not and cannot be the solution to all (or even most) workplace learning needs. That’s obvious, of course, because, as Dr. Glahn explains, nothing is the solution to all workplace learning needs.

What Is Microlearning?

What is microlearning? Here are three definitions from knowledgeable L&D professionals. The definitions offer critical insights about how to use microlearning.

Learning from content accessed in short bursts, content which is relevant to the individual, and repeated over time to ensure retention and build conceptual understanding.

– Donald Taylor, author, chairman of the Learning and Performance Institute and the Learning Technologies Conference

Small but complete learning experiences.

– Clark Quinn, author and learning technology strategy leader

Relatively short engagements in learning-related activities—that may provide any combination of content presentation, review, practice, reflection, behavioral prompting, performance support, goal reminding, persuasive messaging, task assignments, social interaction, diagnosis, coaching, management interaction, or other learning-related methodologies.

– Will Thalheimer, author, learning-and-performance consultant and researcher

I picked these definitions because these people deeply understand training and learning technologies and I know they think deeply about L&D topics. Too many definitions of microlearning only agree that they are short. Using that definition would make me microlearning, as I’m short.

People point to short videos and call them “microlearning” but content doesn’t necessarily create learning, per Quinn’s notion of “complete learning experiences.” Learning involves mental effort and a change in knowledge, per Taylor’s insight about the need for retention and understanding. Like the other two definitions, Thalheimer helps us understand that microlearning must be primarily about learning, not content.

Technology can facilitate microlearning, but microlearning is not mostly about technology. Technology offers potential delivery methods for microlearning, but microlearning can work without technologies. Ever had a colleague show you how to ________ (for example, change your profile information in your organization’s employee directory) and then stand by to help while you do it yourself? Ta da! Informal microlearning on changing your profile. Would a video or online demo work as well? It could, but too many people leave out the “complete experience” that Quinn mentions, the “building understanding” aspects that Taylor describes, or the other instructional elements that Thalheimer lists.

Microlearning isn’t new. It’s a repackaging of previous learning ideas, explains Donald Clark, writer, vocal critic on silliness in workplace learning, and former CEO. You’ve likely heard of chunking, learning nuggets, and learning objects. Chunking, for example, is a strategy we use to better work within the constraints of working memory. It involves organizing large blocks of content into smaller, logical segments. Cognitive science research shows that chunking can improve focus, reduce the potential for overload, and make it easier to remember. As you might expect, these are almost exactly why some people call for microlearning. And it also tells us people newer to a topic benefit from smaller chunks than people with more knowledge and skill.

One of the differences between some of what people are calling microlearning and appropriate chunking is that good chunking shows the organization of the topic, which supports mental processes and helps people build usable knowledge. Organization also help people see the scope of the topic and connections between different parts. Disconnected chunks make these critical outcomes harder. Microlearning elements can seem disconnected so they don’t help people understand how different topics connect.

Microlearning Vs. Macrolearning

Is microlearning better than macrolearning? That’s like asking if bacon is better than zucchini. Better for what? If you are making ratatouille, you need zucchini. Bacon might be a good addition, but it’s not a substitute for zucchini. Likewise, a bacon-lettuce-tomato (BLT) sandwich needs bacon. (Random thought alert: Do people outside the USA eat BLTs?) Substituting zucchini for the bacon would make it another sandwich entirely.

Macrolearning focuses on larger and more complete skill areas (such as using Microsoft Word, construction ladder safety, or making travel arrangements using your organization’s travel app) and should include the knowledge, practice, and feedback to achieve needed skills. We often offer macrolearning over time because distributed-over-time versus concentrated (event) learning and practice show significant benefits for remembering and application.

Microlearning also needs to include the right learning elements, according to Glahn. Even if smaller in size, each small learning chunk must include critical instructional elements such as practice, feedback, and reflection.

Neither microlearning nor macrolearning need to be formal courses, in case this isn’t obvious. People learn hard things on their own and from others all the time. With the global need for organizations to rapidly adapt and the resulting changes in job skills, people must be able learn on their own using micro and macro approaches. The reason for using formal microlearning or macrolearning is to help people gain specific skills that are critical to the organization.

What’s True. What’s Not. And What’s Nonsense.

The reason I was negative about microlearning before reading the research is because people kept saying things about it that I know couldn’t be true. Here are a few of the more common things I’ve heard or read about microlearning and what research tells us is true.

People say microlearning… And research shows…
1. Helps with “modern learning” because technologies have changed how we learn. Nope, not true. Humans have the same cognitive architecture as they’ve had for thousands of years. Working memory can only process a few chunks information at a time. Technologies have not changed how we learn (see my ATD article on this topic for more) even though technologies have changed how we think.
2. Is needed because people now have a lowered attention span. Not so. The research about a lowering of our attention span was completely made up, as I discussed in my ATD article about this topic. Here’s what we know: Attention spans vary (movies anyone?) and are likely to wander over time.
3. Works because it’s similar to how people find answers to their questions: Online searches. No. Finding answers to quick questions and learning for application (deep learning) aren’t the same.

Learning builds on what we already know. The ability to perform as needed depends on existing knowledge and skills. We need to have a knowledge base to understand what we look up and handle work problems. Cognition research shows that it’s this very knowledge base that makes people with more expertise able to solve problems quicker and with better outcomes.

4. Is needed to make better use of new technologies. Not so. (See 1, 2, and 3.)

We need to use technologies that support needed learning and performance outcomes not change learning to support technology use.

5. Makes transfer of learning more efficient. No. Good performance also requires effectiveness. Efficiency without effectiveness means you got to the wrong place faster. Not a bargain.

Transfer means people can apply learned skills is real life use. Shorter learning interventions are certainly faster to use. But designing for transfer calls for adequate practice and relevant contexts. These critical items may be left out in the quest to be “short.”

6. Allows people to be in control of what they learn. Unlikely to be what is needed, in many situations. Research shows that people new to a topic benefit from explicit instruction. This minimizes wasted effort, misconceptions, and struggling. As people gain expertise, they are far more able to self-direct their learning.

Just because I am able to find where a movie that I want to see is playing using internet search doesn’t mean I can find, understand, and use information about flying a plane (something I know almost nothing about). Once I take flying lessons and have more knowledge and skill, I will be more successful finding and making sense of specific questions I have about planes.

7. Is preferred by users. Possibly true (the research I’ve read is ambiguous), but not entirely relevant.

Research tells us that (nutritional and) instructional effectiveness is NOT correlated with what people prefer. In many cases, what works best and what people prefer are in opposition. For example, I prefer Sun Chips to broccoli. I have elevated blood sugar and these types of snacks negatively impact blood glucose. And that’s a recipe for many illnesses. Just because you prefer to learn by _____ doesn’t mean that’s what works best.

8. Is easier and faster to produce. Yes, shorter content should be easier and faster to produce. Fast food is easier and faster to get into your mouth, but you shouldn’t live on it. Faster is not enough. It must also meet the need.
9. Makes learning seem easier. Yes, shorter content can make learning seem less intimidating. We do no one a favor, however, having them think that building skills and being able to use what they learn isn’t effortful and time consuming.
10. Helps people learn something small, quickly. Yep, this makes sense. This is one of the key opportunities for microlearning. Help people add small elements of knowledge and skill to what they already know.
11. Helps people fit small bits of learning into their hectic work and life. Absolutely. This is one of the best use cases: Helping people fit small bits of learning into their hectic work and life. Smaller instructional chunks are more easily offered and used than larger instructional chunks.

But making learning activities smaller, may remove or reduce components that are critical to deeper learning, according to Glahn. For microlearning to be valuable, he says we must:

  • Provide adequate practice to improve understanding and ability to apply.
  • Supply feedback to fix misunderstandings and improve ability to apply.
  • Expect specific learning outcomes. It’s not enough to count number of views.

Peter Bruck, CEO and Chief Researcher of the Research Studios Austria Forschungsgesellschaft mbH, says microlearning can be the antidote to the abundance and complexity of information we currently face. But unorganized microlearning can actually make this situation worse, not better. He also says microlearning solves another learning issue: time to learn. He agrees that making time to learn is critical for knowledge and skill acquisition. Microlearning can be part of the solution (the micro parts).

Deep learning requires that people be able to accurately organize what they are learning with what they already know. People without needed knowledge or skill to make decisions or perform a task typically struggle with new language, procedures, and decision points (among other things). Research shows they tend to spend effort trying out approaches and seeing what works. People with more knowledge use what they already know to select approaches they think have a better chance of working.

Now for the nonsense. I’ve seen more than a few articles or reports that make ridiculous claims about microlearning and it’s time to bring this nonsense into the light of day. (I’ve changed each of these slightly to protect the people and organizations who wrote them.)

Microlearning improves information retention by 25% over long training.

This articled called on research on multiple-choice questions. The research shows that embedding questions after small sections of content improves retention over putting all the questions at the end. This result points to spacing and testing effects, not microlearning. Microlearning is unlikely to improve retention unless it supplies the elements research shows improves retention, such as practice, spacing, opportunities to retrieve what is learned, relevancy, and more.

Microlearning improves transfer of learning by 20%.

Transfer of learning means people transfer learned skills to the point of use (typically, the job). I looked for research on microlearning in the journal listed and found nothing. (Yo. You need to cite references in ways that allow readers find and verify claims.) They cited another source and when I looked it up, it was research on simulation and adventure games for children. Wild leap, anyone?

Ideal viewing time is 6 minutes.

The writers based this claim on how long students in a higher education classroom watched instructional videos. I couldn’t find this study based on the information provided but even if it exists, it offers little guidance. Research on attention span for lectures, video, and other instructional content shows it isn’t fixed. It varies. There’s no magic number. It tends to wane over time but can come back (that’s why children’s TV uses a lot of movement and sounds). While lack of attention means no learning, attention doesn’t guarantee learning. Learning is complex.

Uses For Microlearning

I’ve discussed how underlying knowledge reduces mental effort and allows people to solve problems efficiently. Well-designed macrolearning typically builds on what people know, helps people remember what needs to be remembered to perform, includes practice over time to gain skill, and provides feedback to focus next steps.

Is microlearning useful? Yes, and that’s why it’s not new.

Here are some uses for microlearning from Donald Clark and Will Thalheimer.

  • Adaptive learning (Al) – Find and organize needed chunks to meet personalized learning needs.
  • Course augmentation – Deliver short after-course or within-course interactions to reinforce and deepen learning.
  • Remembering – Support remembering and ability to use with spacing and practice elements.
  • Performance Support – Supply information when needed to perform a task, support tasks or behavior, and learn from others.

To clarify how micro and macro relate to each other in workplace learning and performance, I put together Table 1, based on a related chart in Hug’s book, Didactics of Microlearning: Concepts, Discourses, and Examples.

Table 1: The relationship of micro to macro in various learning and performance contexts

 Level Learn conversational Spanish Fix common household plumbing problems Learning elements Performance elements
 

Micro

Macro

 

 words gravity, pressure, backflow, fittings, joints, tools learning objects, chunks, job aids, support, and help competencies
phrases, sentences, grammar how supply and drainage systems work topic work tasks
situations, conversations Fixing: leaks and clogsReplacing: faucets, drains, and toilets courses work outcomes, team outcomes, organizational outcomes

One of the major insights from Table 1 is that micro is part of macro and macro includes micro.

Conclusion

I wasn’t surprised that the research doesn’t support much of what people say is true about microlearning. After all, research doesn’t support most of the hype in our field. Our organizations deserve better than hype, folklore, and fads. They damage our credibility and ability to deliver needed results and damage the organizations we serve.

It’s hard to build complex foundational knowledge without a macrolearning approach. This doesn’t always mean formal learning. It simply means deep learning that builds over time and is a process of development over time. In other words, no one learns to be a good programmer by going to a “programming event.” Same for being a good supervisor, good Instructional Designer, and good dental hygienist. Most workplace learning doesn’t even offer the right pieces.

Microlearning isn’t bad or wrong. It cannot do all the (irrational) things people say it can do. But it makes sense as part of a strategy. Use it where it fits and design for needed outcomes.

If you have questions, ask away. Or start a discussion on Twitter by posting to @pattishank and @elearnindustry. See you soon!

Selected References: 

  • Bennett, S. J., Maton, K. A. & Kervin, L. K. (2008). The ‘digital natives’ debate: A critical review of the evidence. British Journal of Educational Technology, 39 (5), 775-786.
  • Bruck, P. A. (). Microlearning as strategic research field: An invitation to collaborate. Proceedings of Microlearning 2005: Learning & Working in New Media Environments.
  • Cepeda, N. J., Coburn, N., Rohrer, D., Wixted, J. T., Mozer, M. C., & Pashler, H. (2009). Optimizing distributed practice: Theoretical analysis and practical implications. Experimental Psychology, 56(4), 236–246.
  • Clark, D. (February 2016). Micro-learning: trend, fad or retred?
  • Craik, F. I., & Lockhart, R. S. (1972). Levels of processing: A framework for memory research. Journal of Verbal Learning & Verbal Behavior, 11(6), 671–684.
  • Glahn, C. (2017). Micro Learning in the Workplace and How to Avoid Getting Fooled by Micro Instructionists.
  • Hug, T., () Microlearning: A new pedagogical challenge. Proceedings of Microlearning 2005: Learning & Working in New Media Environments.
  • Hug, T., (2007) Didactics of Microlearning: Concepts, Discourses, and Examples. Waxmann Verlag GmbH.
  • Murphy, M. (2007). Improving learner reaction, learning score, and knowledge retention through the chunking process in corporate training. Dissertation.
  • Neelen, M. & Kirschner, P.A. (2017). Microlearning – a new old concept to put out to pasture.
  • Quinn, C. (April 2015). Defining Microlearning?
  • Nerb, J., Ritter, F. E., & Langley, P. (2007). Rules of order: Process models of human learning. In F. E. Ritter, J. Nerb, T. O’Shea, & E. Lehtinen (Eds.), In order to learn: How the sequences of topics affect learning. 57-69. Oxford University Press.
  • Meyer, K. (2016). How Chunking Helps Content Processing. Nielsen Norman Group.
  • Shank, P. (October 27, 2016) What Do You Know: Should We Train “Digital Natives” Differently? ATD Science of Learning Blog.
  • Shank, P. (2017). Writing and Organizing for Deeper Learning.
  • Sweller, J. (2008). Human Cognitive Architecture. In J. M. Spector, M. D. Merrill, J. V. Merriënboer, & M.P. Driscoll (Eds.), Handbook of Research on Educational Communications and Technology 3rd ed., 369-381. New York, NY: Taylor & Francis Group.
  • Swyers, Betty J. (1972). Designing a Micro-Unit-Learning-Module. [Washington, D.C.] : Distributed by ERIC Clearinghouse
  • Taylor, D. (January 2017). Micro learning: advance or fantasy?
  • Thalheimer, W. (January 2017) Definition of Microlearning.
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