Microlearning – or e-learning that’s short, fast-paced and highly focused – is a growing trend in workplace training. The main arguments in its favor go something like this: Modern learners have shorter attention spans; they have less time to devote to training; and they want to be able to access training anytime, anywhere.
But do shorter bursts of learning get better results? And how are assessments best utilized in a microlearning environment?
An e-learning study conducted in Germany attempted to shed light on these questions.
Researchers designed an e-learning course that lasted 50 minutes in total. The course was divided into 16 chapters, or modules, each about three minutes long.
The researchers created a multiple choice question for each module. These questions were written to check for understanding and reinforce the key concept of the chapter. After a question was answered, the learner received feedback about why their answer was right or wrong.
Before taking the course, participants were divided into three groups – short, medium and long.
The short-duration group watched the modules one at a time – in three-minute increments – with a multiple-choice question appearing immediately at the conclusion of the module.
For the medium-duration group, the course was broken into quarters – they watched four modules, lasting about 12 minutes, then received four questions, and so on.
The long-duration group’s course was divided in half – about 25 minutes each. They watched eight modules, followed by eight questions, and did so again.
After finishing the modules and practice questions, all participants were given a final assessment.
There was very little difference between the short and medium groups’ scores. But the long-duration group performed much worse, scoring 20 percent lower than the other two cohorts.
Short and quick
Researchers suggested several reasons for why the short and medium groups outperformed the long-duration learners.
First, the shorter bursts of learning created less cognitive load, allowing learners to better process and integrate the information into their memory.
Second, the practice questions required rapid recall soon after the initial learning experience, which helped learners solidify the new information in their minds. In contrast, researchers found that the long-duration learners had to frequently go back and rewatch the module in order to answer their questions. Because they received so much information in one sitting, they couldn’t remember what they had learned. They relied on the module to bail them out, which leap-frogged over the effortful recall that helps lock in learning.
And third, answering questions right after learning and getting immediate feedback helps learners feel like they’re making progress. It boosts learners’ confidence, clears up misunderstandings and keeps trainees on track. Without this timely assessment and feedback, learners may forget what they’ve learned, continue to believe misunderstandings or disengage with the learning experience.
Create microlearning experiences. Whether you are using e-learning or not, consider building short bursts of training – or breaking large courses down into shorter increments – so that learners can more easily absorb the information. This cuts down on cognitive load and aids the processing of new knowledge.
Assess frequently. Use assessments to check understanding and reinforce what’s important. In e-learning, create a quiz or other assessment for learners to take quickly after a module ends. For in-person training, ask your learners questions early and often to ensure they are on track. These informal assessments reinforce your key concepts, and you can also use them to reveal misunderstandings and correct them.
Provide timely feedback. Similar to the study, give your learners feedback as quickly as possible. Assessments help trainees stay focused and build confidence. Uncertainty can undermine learners’ confidence and lead to confusion and disengagement.
Kapp, F., et al. (2015). Distributing vs. blocking learning questions in a web-based learning environment. Journal of Educational Computing Research, 51(4), 397-416.
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