Debunking the Fears of Microlearning

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Microlearning has graduated to become a buzzword in the corporate learning and development space. With its reputation as the go-to solution to capture the attention of and truly engage with the next generation of learners, it’s easy to see why microlearning is developing into a phenomenon in its own right.

Here’s a breakdown of microlearning:

  • Microlearning is learning in short bursts of time (typically 10 minutes or less)
  • It involves the creation of short training modules that are easily digestible, and can be created quickly and easily
  • Micro courses are accessible anytime and anywhere to the learner, so learners can pull the information they need as and when it’s appropriate or convenient

Microlearning has of course its fair share of naysayers, and they have cast doubt on its legitimacy as an effective corporate learning tool. As a result, perhaps we’ve gotten a little wary of one of L&Ds hottest buzzwords, and perhaps we’ve even let some of these fears creep into our psyche, thwarting our plans to formalize microlearning in our organisations.

Well then, it’s time to put some of these fears to rest, shall we?


Fear #1 – Microlearning is just another fad

We’re always looking for the next big thing to train and educate employees, so it’s easy to grow wary of the latest discovery as just another passing fad.

However, contrary to what you might think, microlearning is a learning method that has existed for a long time and been proven by several studies. Today though, it might be packaged as a new approach, and this has probably caused much of the confusion.

What the research says

  • In the 1970s, Johnstone and Percival’s studies reported how optimal learning takes place in the range of 10-18 minutes. After that time, learners would start to lose focus and zone out.¹
  • In 1985, Burns’ research confirmed this theory. It was found that learners could recall knowledge better when learning was capped at 15 minutes.²

And if we were to reflect on our own learning patterns, we’d find several other things that would point towards the legitimacy of microlearning.

  • We are less likely to be bored or burnt out by short chunks of information as opposed to an hour of reading or any other learning activity
  • Our ability to remember information decreases as the length of information to absorb increases
  • We’ll be more motivated to complete something if we know that it’ll only take us 5-10 minutes

It’s safe to say, microlearning is here for the long haul. It’d be a mistake to dismiss it as yet another fad, because you’d be missing out on a huge opportunity to engage and motivate your employees.


Fear #2 – It’s too tough to cover a wide range of learning topics in a short time

Perhaps you struggle to see how a training module that typically takes an hour’s worth of eLearning to deliver can be condensed into 3-7 minute long courses.

Well, I struggle to see the same thing as well. You see, microlearning  is not about condensing the whole range of your training topics into a bunch of micro courses. It would be like trying to squeeze an elephant into the trunk of a Volkswagen Beetle. You simply can’t go into the details in a short time, like how you would in other training formats such as a series of day-long workshops. And microlearning is not meant for that either, it’s not meant to replace such training.



“Condensing a whole range of topics into a bunch of micro courses would be like trying to squeeze an elephant into a Volkswagen Beetle”

If you take a broad look at all the skills and knowledge that someone needs to acquire to perform their job; there are those that require the big extended training programs that go into the nitty gritty of the who, when, where, what, why and how. On the other end of this spectrum, there are little pieces of knowledge that would be relevant to their jobs as well, in very specific contexts.

For instance, if we take customer service as a content area, there are plenty of customer recovery protocols that someone would have to follow, but microlearning is about providing that specific resource that an employee needs to meet a particular situation as it comes up (e.g. what to do after serving a wrong order, or how to handle a complaint about the air-conditioning).

Microlearning thus addresses the requirement for just-in-time learning that an employee needs in specific contexts- something a training workshop held once every year can’t address. So think of microlearning as a way to round out your training strategy, to support and provide the necessary coverage for the gaps that other training activities can’t tackle, so you can reduce the reliance on such activities as well.


Fear #3 – Employees won’t take microlearning seriously

We’re used to the concept that a classroom is where all the serious learning gets done.  There’s a word for that – school. At work though, most of time learning takes place anywhere and all the time: maybe in meetings, during short conversations at the pantry, or whenever we open up an email.

The fact that microlearning can occur in any environment beyond the four walls of a class might cause some of us to squirm in our seats. In a casual environment, who’s controlling the learners? How do we know they’re actually learning? If we use Twitter to share knowledge or crowd-source for answers, how do we make sure the right information gets out? Will employees start abusing these tools?

The list of worries is an endless stream isn’t it? As learning leaders we’re used to the tight reign we have over our learners, dictating what to learn and when to learn it. But we don’t really have the bandwidth to manage this perfectly either. The bigger the organisation, the more varied the interests, learning styles, preferences, and personalities – the bigger the headache.

Microlearning presents a mindshift – the learners pull the knowledge and information that they need, the learners are in charge, so you don’t have to manage them as closely and you can save the hand-holding for your kids. You’re focus instead is squarely on content, providing bite-sized information that would be helpful to employees in specific situations. If it solves a direct problem in their work, employees will naturally want to access the material at the time when they most need it, because there will be immediate repercussions for them if they can’t complete a certain task or get the job done right.

But let’s say you want to err on the side of caution; there are precautionary measures you can take. The first of which, is making sure to set some ground rules, providing a general guideline and setting expectations of the use and purpose of microlearning in your organisation.

And if you’re worried about the quality of user-generated content in your organisation (people posting irrelevant topics or answers etc.), you could always involve moderators to police the content and have policies in place to provide direction for the types of contributions that are valued from employees.


Fear #4 – Shorter courses compromise the quality of learning

We often equate quality of learning to comprehensiveness. Surely, the longer the time we spend in training the better right?

Eh, not quite.  As a result of this perception, we try to cram learning with answers to every question imaginable, and we design courses that are far too lengthy and bloated with extraneous content. And often, learners just need the short answer.

Instead, we should determine the quality of learning by outcome, and not length. And here are a few snippets of research that compares the impact of a bite-sized approach to longer forms of training.

What the research says

  • In 2002, BBC reported that a bite-sized training approach resulted in greater understanding, retention and application as compared to day-long training³
  • George Miller’s Information Process Theory states that a learner’s short-term memory is limited to processing information in chunks, and suggests content should be broken down to make it easier to understand and remember as opposed to presenting long chains of information
  • Digenti (2000) and Cross (2007) reported that longer forms of training like classes and workshops were less effective because they cover only 10-20 percent of what people actually need to perform their jobs well4


Fear #5 – The Cost of Microlearning

No doubt, implementing microlearning is going to cost you. Costs will have to be incurred to administer the change, develop training material, and scale up the initiative.

But consider also the opportunity cost – that is the cost of employee’s time. In microlearning, there is no need to schedule employee’s down for hours’ worth of classes and workshops, employees don’t have to reserve time away from work, instead learning takes place in the flow of their jobs.

Plus, microlearning doesn’t require expenditure on limited and pricey resources like trainers and physical class spaces.

So with microlearning you’ll be able to see a better learning ROI as compared to more traditional approaches.

In the long-term, microlearning will ultimately save you money instead of cost you. It puts to good use, the 80-20 rule in Pareto’s principle. This principle named after economist Vilfredo Pareto states that it’s the vital 20 percent that’s responsible for 80 percent of your outcomes, i.e. 20 percent of training generates 80 percent of your business value. In microlearning, we distill learning to the most important real-world problems that employees must solve. And the result is high impact at a low cost.

Time to share with us your fears! Put them in the comments below.


1. Johnstone, A. and F. Percival. “Attention Breaks in Lectures.” 1976.

2. Burns, R. “Information Impact and Factors Affecting Recall.” 1985.



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