The First Rule Of Microlearning
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What's The First Rule Of Microlearning You Should Be Aware Of?

Microlearning has been getting rave reviews as the next "big thing" in Learning and Development. Up to this point, few people have articulated effective practice for microlearning, so I derived a few guidelines of my own to follow. In this article, I’ll discuss my "first rule of microlearning—Thou shalt enable performance, not just teach facts."

Let’s do an experiment. Before we get started, get a pencil and a blank sheet of paper, or a large post-it note. Next, set the pencil and paper down on your desk or table, and do the following:

  1. Click the link below titled "Playing with Cognitive Load (No Load)" shown below, look at the numbers, wait for them to disappear, and then write them down from memory. (Note: The numbers will disappear after a few seconds). Playing with Cognitive Load (No Load)
  2. Reload the page as needed to check how many numbers you listed correctly.
  3. Put the paper and pen down again, and then click the link below titled "Playing with Cognitive Load," look at the numbers, wait for them to disappear, and then write them down from memory. Playing with Cognitive Load
  4.  Reload the page as needed to check how many numbers you listed correctly.

Information Is Not Instruction!

You probably found it easy to remember the numbers listed in the first example, but a little more challenging to recall the numbers listed in the second example. Why? Recalling the first set of numbers is easy because our brain naturally recognizes patterns which in turn helps to retain information in short-term memory. Recalling the second set of numbers is more challenging because the numbers were randomized; this is a good illustration of what can happen when we exceed cognitive load (7+/-2; "the 7 plus or minus 2 principles"), and it’s also a good illustration of why we should avoid presenting facts as a stand-alone instruction.

Our job as designers and performance consultants is to "help" people recall/remember "facts" when needed to accomplish an immediate task, and/or to learn other types of knowledge (concepts, procedures, processes, or principles)—(I call these "CP3"). Job-aids, or other performance support tools, assist in solving immediate tasks and are also useful for helping people remember infrequently used facts, procedures, and processes. (Note: Job-aids are not microlearning! Information is not instruction!).

It's important to note that facts are only "learned" at the recall level, and can only be encoded in long-term memory after repeated practice or rote memorization; or if associated with other types of knowledge (CP3). Let’s see how this works by doing one more experiment. Watch the video below (Making Banana Bread Ice Cream Cake) one time, and then continue reading the article.

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Microlearning Or Drill And Kill?

Did you learn enough from the video to make the cake, or like me, did you just end up craving a scoop of ice cream? Most of us need to watch and pause the video numerous times before encoding enough information to make the cake—that’s not microlearning—it’s "drill & kill."

An alternative approach is to present the video, and then help the learner recall the recipe using simple index cards or a web page— sort of like mom’s secret recipe cards! Cards are also more appropriate to the context in which a person makes the cake; in a messy kitchen who wants to risk getting flour, egg, sugar, and other sticky stuff on their iPad?

Implications Of The "First Rule"

So, what are the implications of the "first rule" in terms of utilizing microlearning?

  1. Use a job-aid or Performance Support Tool to help performers find and use infrequently used facts, procedures, and processes. Consider using a contextually-sensitive help system (such as WalkMe or RoboHelp) so performers can reference information as needed to accomplish immediate tasks. Old fashioned print job-aids work too!
  2. Use appropriate, and proven, instructional methods and strategies to developing microlearning (i.e., present content, guide learning, provide practice/assessment, and feedback); research tells us that encoding is accelerated through practice—either structured or implied (In the example above, assessment is implied in the performance of making the cake from memory; no criterion-referenced assessments are required!).

Context And Performance Are Kings!

Microlearning’s best use is to provide on-demand and granular instruction that can be quickly consumed, applied, and self-assessed. Presenting microlearning at the wrong time, and delivered in the wrong context, can lead to unintended consequences and gaps in performance.

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