Microlearning is a type of short, focused learning that can usually be completed in just a few minutes. This short-burst approach to learning is increasingly popular in today's fast-paced workplace, where employees are often bombarded with new information and responsibilities. One study found that 95% of eLearning professionals prefer microlearning because their students prefer it. Microlearning is a great way to supplement and reinforce longer learning units, or help employees quickly master specific, job-related skills.
“The idea of performance support has been getting a lot of traction,” as Ajay Jacob, Learning and Development Manager for TomTom explains. “And for me, that’s where microlearning really plays a very important role. It allows people to learn in the flow of work and make it easier for them to resolve whatever problem they have and carry on, rather than having to leave their workflow and go to the LMS to consume a much larger piece of learning.”
The best microlearning uses elements like video, quizzes, and graphics together to create an interactive experience. The key is to keep it short—less than 6 minutes long, and often closer to 2 or 3—and most importantly, to make sure that each section delivers something valuable so that learners can come away with a clear idea or two about the topic being taught.
Take a look at the many different ways that microlearning is used to transmit knowledge quickly and effectively:
Merriam-Webster is known for their sassy social media presence as well as their dictionaries: for example, their recent Twitter thread about irregardless tells readers to “shriek into the void about the cruelty of a world in which language does not follow the rules you think it should.”
Merriam-Webster also gives us a neat example of microlearning with their Word of the Day emails. Readers get a word definition, etymology, and example in context right to their inbox each day. It’s a bite-sized dictionary snippet that helps readers build their vocabulary with minimal effort.
Fire Extinguisher Instructions
Microlearning is a good tool when learners need to master a skill quickly, and few things are more urgent than learning to operate a fire extinguisher when you need one. Fortunately, the instructions get the job done.
“The pictogram guidance on the side of most fire extinguishers is one of the best examples I have seen of microlearning to date,” says LX architect David Glow. “It teaches critical skills in seconds, it’s designed for all languages, and it fully considers the application context. It is brilliant design.”
Product Training at Lowes Foods
When Scott Kyles was a training specialist at Lowes Foods, his team began creating microlearning courses to train in-store associates on learning new product information in a way that would be more engaging and would hopefully improve retention. “Before that, we would print a brochure, make a flyer, or just send out a set of slides for store hosts to sign off on,” he says. “The problem with that approach is general lack of engagement and retention.”
Instead, the Lowes Foods training team began designing small hybrid e-learning modules that department managers could easily facilitate with small groups of employees in person. For example, the team put together a short course about Certified Angus Beef that included a short video, key talking points for upselling to guests, and a roleplay conversation exercise to use.
These microlearning sessions were great for quick product training, Scott says. “It was a lot more effective. They retained more information. And they actually learned to use the language we wanted them to use with guests. And using the actual department managers as facilitators helped to build a greater sense of team. The whole approach was really a win-win.”
Duolingo’s Language Lessons
Duolingo’s short, snappy language lessons are a great example of microlearning done right: with just a few minutes of practice each day, the app allows users to learn the basics of a new language.
The lessons are gamified, with points for logging in and completing a lesson, and each activity is fast and colorful. Duolingo had 37 million active users in 2021, so their approach is clearly resonating with users.
Nexefy’s micromodules can be up to six minutes long, with a practical focus and one or two key takeaways. “They’re the elearning equivalent of walking over to your colleague’s desk and saying, ‘hey, I need help with this, can you show me how to do it?’” Henno says. “But we don’t always have that colleague sitting a few chairs down. So we've made these modules to get the learner engaged and learn that really practical skill in that short timeframe.”
One of Nexefy’s most successful micromodules on Inclusive Language is designed to supplement the larger Bullying, Discrimination, and Harassment course they offer.
The course includes a short self-assessment, an animated video, and a simulated scenario to put the learning into practice. Once the learner passes, they get a PDF with key inclusive terms that they can print out and keep at their desk or save on their computer. All of their micromodules follow a similar format, Henno adds.
“They're really workflow friendly. You can do them on a break, or while you're waiting for a meeting, or on the bus,” he says. “They're mobile friendly, too, so they can fit into your daily workflow really easily.”
7taps specializes in fun, effortless microlearning courses that can be built and delivered in 15 minutes. This multiple-choice quiz allows learners to test their ability to deal with a head injury at work, for example. In just a few clicks, users answer questions, test their knowledge, and learn what to do (and not to do) when someone has a head injury at work. The interactive format makes it more engaging and helps the information stick more than a video or checklist otherwise would.
“Nudges” for Manager Feedback
As a Learning and Development Manager for TomTom, Ajay Jacob uses microlearning to encourage managers to give their team regular, ongoing feedback. “We’re trying to encourage our managers to have continuous conversations with employees, rather than reviews once a year,” Ajay explains. “And microlearning has been a great way to nudge them to do that. We can ask them if they’ve checked in with their employees and give them examples of powerful questions they can ask their direct reports. It’s really interesting to see how it can be applied in different scenarios.”
Over time, these nudges can help shift behavior and help employees build new habits. “It’s blurring the lines between comms and learning,” Ajay adds. “It's not something that they're doing once a month like visiting the LMS and doing a long course, but it's something that they're doing every day.”
When Microlearning Goes Wrong: Remember Clippy?
Microsoft’s Office Assistant Clippy (officially named Clippit, apparently) is a great example of what not to do. The famously unpopular feature interrupted Word users just trying to get on with their day, pulling focus from whatever they were trying to accomplish. As Mike Talks explains in a Medium post about Clippy, “The feature was trying to be helpful, but typically the help would interrupt a user, and functioned as a distraction. Not great in a feature that’s supposed to help users be more productive.”
But “bad” attempts at microlearning can still give us useful takeaways–for one, mountains of Clippy memes have been blessing the internet for nearly two decades now. But more importantly, Clippy teaches us what not to do: don’t interrupt the flow of your learners unasked, and make sure the learning you are delivering is relevant, with a clear practical focus.
Microlearning Lets You Get Creative
Creating microlearning content is a great way to experiment and try new things in a low-stakes situation. It’s also an easy way for newer L&D professionals to try their hand at creating learning content without having to dive deep into more complex tools. “There are so many tools that help you create small, light-touch learning assets fairly quickly,” Ajay says. “You’re not working with a standard PowerPoint, where people’s eyes glaze over as soon as they see it.”
That said, sometimes microlearning needs to be contextualized as part of a larger learning journey. “It needs to be part of your toolkit,” Ajay concludes. “I don't think you can rely purely on microlearning. But when used well, it can really be a very powerful tool.”