It’s a triple play that could be a winner for learners and eLearning designers: using mobile-friendly microlearning to implement a spaced repetition or spaced learning program. These concepts intersect to empower eLearning and add a tool to the performance support toolbox:

  • Microlearning, creating eLearning in small chunks that learners can access anywhere, at any time, is a great strategy to engage learners in reviewing content presented in other formats and at other times.
  • A mobile-friendly app or eLearning framework can push a daily reminder to the learners, encouraging them to practice frequently or at the same time each day. This is the principle used, for example, by the free online language-learning platform Duolingo. With control over when and where they do the eLearning, learners are more likely to add the small microlearning units to their daily workflow.
  • The microlearning modules can repeat essential information in new ways, connecting concepts and expanding on earlier concepts. By offering spaced practice with key concepts or facts, this strategy enables learners to refresh their knowledge and solidify their memory of the information.

Duolingo applies other key concepts of spaced learning, spaced repetition, and adaptive learning as well: Lessons repeat words and phrases introduced in previous lessons, mixing them with new words and concepts, to refresh learners’ memories and test recall. If a student answers a question incorrectly, the missed information is offered again, sometimes in multiple ways, within the same short lesson. Duolingo offers easy access online or using a smartphone app, so it’s very mobile-friendly. These features, which eLearning designers can easily implement, exploit the way the human brain processes information and creates long-term memories.

Spaced learning and spaced repetition apply neuroscience findings that show that learning with breaks gives the brain time to create permanent memories and is more effective than constant stimulation of the neural pathways that form the biological basis for memories.

The forgetting curve, first defined by German psychologist Hermann Ebbinghaus, describes the decline of retention over time. Ebbinghaus also described the now-familiar concepts of a learning curve and the spacing effect—essentially, Ebbinghaus discovered that spaced learning and spaced repetition result in stronger retention than massed learning or “cramming.”

While any sort of learning might have a learning curve—an increase in learning over time or with greater exposure or experience—some tasks are more ideally suited to short, spaced lessons. While learning vocabulary in a new language is a common example, other material fits this style of learning as well. Any topic where learners need to remember a large number of facts lends itself well to both microlearning and spaced repetition. Flashcard games like Tinycards drill learners—of any age—on language, geography, science, and more. A similar app or game can be used to teach sales personnel the features of products, letting them review and test themselves whenever they have a few minutes. Add in leaderboards to tap into the competition among sales reps, and learners have a fun, playful—and mobile-friendly—way to keep the myriad details of their company’s products straight. Even better, the games or flashcards are easy to update when product details change or new products join the lineup.

A different type of learning occurs in the brain games that are popping up everywhere; for example, Lumosity offers a free daily drill. These use both microlearning and spaced repetition to challenge learners to think in different ways, solve problems, or test their ability to focus on two or more tasks concurrently. These games drill and test executive function skills, such as planning and prioritizing, flexible thinking, or working memory, rather than recall of factual information. Though research doesn’t support claims that practicing brain games at home for a few minutes a day can stave off dementia (see, for example, a study published in PLOS Medicine in 2014), the games do challenge learners to use different skills, which could translate to improved creativity and productivity on their job tasks.

Microlearning games are easy to customize; designers can build them using content that teaches material and skills relevant to learners’ jobs. And incorporating a spaced repetition paradigm offers opportunities to present that information in a variety of formats: Designers can paraphrase information or use examples and stories to reinforce concepts and facts; they can ask learners to apply information in different ways; and they can provide repetition using exercises, tests, discussions, simulations, and more.


Kelley, Paul, and Terry Whatson. “Making long-term memories in minutes: a spaced learning pattern from memory research in education.” Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, Vol. 7. 25 September 2013.

Lampit, Amit, Harry Hallock, and Michael Valenzuela. “Computerized Cognitive Training in Cognitively Healthy Older Adults: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis of Effect Modifiers.” PLOS Medicine, Vol. 11, No. 11. November 2014.

Rischke, Alexis E., Kim P. Roberts, and Heather L. Price. “Using Spaced Learning Principles to Translate Knowledge into Behavior: Evidence from Investigative Interviews of Alleged Child Abuse Victims.” Journal of Police and Criminal Psychology, Vol. 26, No. 1. April 2011.