The concept of microlearning has been evolving as a named approach to learning for going on three decades after its introduction in 2003. Interest has grown, along with the desire for short, efficient methods of instruction, and yet, in spite of excellent guides such as Microlearning: Short and Sweet by Karl Kapp and Robyn Defelice, many practitioners seem to misunderstand the idea and to have difficulty applying it in their work. In this article, I would like to clarify some key points that may help you implement microlearning in your instructional designs.

Common misunderstandings include the idea that the point of microlearning is to reduce learning to five-minute chunks, and the notion that microlearning is a cure-all that can be applied to any learning requirement and to every instructional situation. We often see claims that microlearning can be designed and implemented quickly. All three of these ideas can lead an instructional designer into a waste of time and effort that fails to result in learning.

Microlearning requires the same disciplined approach to design as any successful attempt to improve skill, knowledge, or performance. Keeping the experience brief is the result of that discipline and of intentional focus on well-defined outcomes. An arbitrary time limit on the experience should not be one of the designer’s desired outcomes.

Rather than thinking about whether the microlearning should be presented through a particular medium or delivery approach (text, video, gamification, spaced repetition), it would be more productive to consider the outcome in terms of the use case, for example in Kapp and Defelice’s words, ”to pass a test, properly assemble an item, or act or behave in a certain way.”

This is also true when considering the various software offerings from vendors. By identifying the use case(s) for which the software is intended, it should be simpler to come up with a short list of software candidates that may fit your outcome. If you have not already acquired a copy of Short and Sweet, I recommend the book as your next step before adding microlearning to your repertoire. The authors point out that, “Learning professionals understand that the right application of the right techniques at the right time is what makes a learning program work—not the technique itself.” There are 78 software offerings listed on Capterra’s site for microlearning, and unless you can discern the use case for which each one supports distribution of training and learning content “in bite-size pieces that can be consumed in short periods of time”, you may find it difficult to make the most appropriate choice.

According to Kapp and Defelice, there are six use cases for microlearning:

  • Preparation for a larger learning event; this could be a kind of advance organizer to introduce the event topic by highlighting the relationship between what the participants are about to learn and what they already know or have already learned.
  • A refresher after a larger learning event; this could be a supplement or reinforcement for what the participants learned. For example, after sales training for a new product, periodic questions about product features, or the use of flash cards to improve retention of information.
  • Performance prompts at the point of need within a workflow, for example a review of the next step or steps.
  • Reflective inquiry, to help users think through application of a learned idea, situation, or task, or to remediate performance.
  • To persuade the learner to change their behavior by applying what they have previously learned or agreed to do.
  • To provide practice that will help sharpen a new skill.

In each of these use cases, the goal of the microlearning is a single outcome, not an entire lesson or curriculum, or mastery of an entire topic. Microlearning works at the lowest level of learning, not as a summary or new set of skills or behaviors. It is possible for the instructional designer to be the source of the microlearning, or it may be the learner individually, such as using flash cards or software to prompt responses. There will not be the presentation of new information within the microlearning.

Kapp and Defelice provide a large number of examples of these use cases, and readers of this article would do well to study the first three chapters of their book to give some context to understanding. Identifying your outcome and use case will do more than almost any other action you can take in order to assure your success.