Why does good microlearning work? Why does any eLearning succeed or fail? The science of microlearning—much like the science of learning—consists of several principles. These principles examine how we process and remember information, whether and for how long we can retain and recall it, and what influences whether we are able to pull it out of our memories and apply it in a relevant situation. Many of these principles apply to microlearning—or, at least, to effective microlearning.

Let’s take a look at three principles of successful learning that are easy to apply in a microlearning context—and that underscore how microlearning can maximize learning retention.

Engaged learners retain more learning

Engaged learners spend more time using training materials, pay closer attention to the content, and remember it longer. Gamification of learning is a popular way to make eLearning, especially microlearning, more engaging.

Gamification refers to layering game elements on top of content. An alternative is creating a serious learning game, which means building the content into a game which is inseparable from the learning material and goals. Many microlearning platforms take this approach, but gamifying existing content is a quicker and easier way to, developers hope, make content more engaging.

Gamification might consist of adding elements like fitting puzzle pieces together or moving an avatar around a board or virtual space to gain access to the next level or question, introducing points and incentives for people to keep playing or answer a specified number of questions, or adding a leaderboard mechanism to rank players and compare their progress against either their own past performance or against colleagues or competing teams’ progress. It can manifest simply as setting specific goals for the learner and showing them their progress toward that goal.

These mechanisms appeal to learners’—humans’—“core compulsions,” in the words of Deborah Thomas of Silly Monkey. Compulsions like collecting things and competing against (and beating) rivals.

Games and gamification are not the only ways to engage learners, of course. A great story can hook readers and keep them engaged, as can interactive activities, relevant and challenging content, and even effective visual design. But games and gamification fit well with the microlearning paradigm. Your learners are the same people who obsessively played Angry Birds, Candy Crush, or Pokémon GO, after all. If you get the game elements right, you can easily get learners to spend a few minutes every day doing their training.

Incremental learning works

Incremental learning is not only a principle of cognitive science, it’s practically a definition of microlearning. People naturally learn things in small, bite-sized nuggets. The fact that books, university courses, and eLearning tends to serve enormous portions consisting of dozens or hundreds of these learning nuggets is immaterial. The brain still processes information in small, discrete units.

Microlearning acknowledges this—and capitalizes on it.

Built into the idea of incremental learning is the notion of scaffolding. This is presenting information in a logical, progressive way, allowing learners to use what they have already learned to process and understand new—more complex—content. Starting with easier challenges also provides learners with opportunities to succeed and become engaged with the material.

Throw in an adaptive learning element, an algorithm perhaps, as many microlearning platforms do and you can expose learners to new information incrementally—while also sparing them the mind-numbing experience of repeated exposure to material they already know. That increases engagement while also meshing with the way people naturally learn.

Spaced repetition aids recall

Hand-in-hand with incremental learning is spaced practice. The human brain decides which pieces of information to move from short-term memory to long-term memory—retention!—based in part on how often a person tries to recall that information.

Spaced practice, such as asking learners questions on a topic periodically, using a microlearning app, a chatbot, or a text-based learning program pushes them to recall the information. Even better if a variety of different questions are used, pushing the learner to recall and apply the information in different ways.

These tactics encourage the brain to connect bits of information and add new information to what is already stored. This strengthens and reinforces connections among stored information and, ultimately, convinces the brain that the new information is worth keeping. It moves the new content into long-term memory—and the learner retains it.

Microlearning is an ideal vehicle for this type of repeated practice. Some microlearning platforms use a “drip delivery” approach that asks learners to spend a few minutes per day learning and recalling content. This continuous microlearning approach makes it easy for learners to fit training and practice into their busy day. It also promotes engagement and improves retention.

Effective microlearning engages learners, delivers the right content to learners at their moment of need, and reinforces what they’ve learned to boost retention.

Learn what works

Join hundreds of your peers at Learning Solutions 2020 Conference & Expo in Orlando, Florida, March 31–April 2, 2020, to share solutions, take a deep dive into microlearning and other eLearning approaches, discover emerging technologies, learn best practices, and grow your L&D network. Check out the pre-conference workshops, too, including one on creating effective microlearning.