What Is Microlearning? The Truth You Need to Know

what is microleaning feature imageDoes the hype about microlearning really mean you can learn in snippets? 

Should you really expect to learn anything of value from a five minute video? 

If so… how can you trust that the creators on the microlearning platforms you’re learning are actually qualified to teach? 

If you’re confused by this trend and wondering if it’s legit, you’re in luck. We’re diving deep into the topic and bringing clarity to all of its many angles. 

Let’s dig in.

What Is Microlearning?

Microlearning is meant to be a short and focused learning event intended to create a specific outcome. 

However, exactly what defines “short” is variable. 

Not only that, but there are so many possible outcomes…

It’s really hard to predict what key insights might emerge.

For example, this article is one such focused learning event. In writing it, I am trying to pack the maximum amount of information about microlearning into the smallest space possible. 

However, if you’re a slow reader, you might not consider going through this article particularly “short.” 

This fact means that at a fundamental level, what counts as “micro” is in the eye of the learner. 

And you might get ideas from this post that I cannot possibly predict.

The unexpected benefits are what really learning is all about, which is why we should all be doing as much of it as possible.

The Ultimate Problem With The Microlearning “Hype”

Unfortunately, some people think that the definition of microlearning means that little or no effort should be involved. 

Since we know that the brain needs to be challenged in order to learn, that view needs to be debunked. You cannot learn anything without some effort.

However, this fact does not mean that effort has to be painful. Kissing and eating chocolate both take effort, but they are also both fun. So much fun that we don’t even notice the effort involved. 

Microlearning Is NOT new!

The term goes back to 1963. Hector Correa used it in a book called The Economics of Human Resources.

Some people argue that people learn better from “snippets” of information.

Although this may be true, they spread misinformation about the nature of information. 

For example, knowledge is not “bite-sized.” Knowledge in fact has no size because it is dynamic, constantly shifting and growing. 

 

book pages

Neither is the idea of learning in short bursts particularly new. The military has used it for a very long time. And memory athlete Dave Farrow swears by the power of memorizing information in small doses.

These facts mean that:

  • Microlearning cannot offer you access to a complete learning ecosystem
  • It never involves proper resource libraries 
  • It cannot serve all types of learners
  • It is not suitable for every type of learning outcome
  • Forcing it on many learners is a recipe for disaster
  • It should not be a replacement for other learning options

When you’re looking at so-called “research” claiming that microlearning is “proven,” please make sure to bring your best critical thinking strategies

Often, people are trying to accommodate the destroyed attention span issues we’ve been seeing in our age of digital amnesia.

That said, microlearning definitely has its place and can benefit you. But it’s not what many people crack it up to be. 

yellow sweater woman is reading a book

5 Microlearning Examples

In a book called  Microlearning in the Digital Age: The Design and Delivery of Learning in Snippets, the authors make one thing clear:

Real learning, sometimes called “deep learning” requires multimedia. It can’t be confined to just one thing. This is because in order for the brain to make connections between words, ideas, graphics and processes, learning material has to be seen and experienced in multiple contexts. 

So when we look at microlearning examples, we need to keep this in mind. Again, there’s nothing new here. As Tyson Yunkaporta has shown, breaking things down and spreading information across multiple “media” is an ancient learning strategy used by indiginous populations around the world. 

One: TED Talks

Perhaps the most famous form of learning something new in a highly compressed format is the TED Talk format. Some people have been calling this format the “microlecture.”

If you read the comments on my TEDx Talk, you’ll see what I mean about “short” being in the eye of the learner. If you can believe it, more than a few people have complained that 13 minutes is way too long.

But the trick is not just to passively consume the lesson. It’s to go out and implement it. 

Not all TED Talks give you this opportunity, which means that not all of them really count as microlearning. 

Two: Introductory Books

There are many short books you can read that give you rapid access to the key ideas or concepts involved in an area of study.

The Very Short Introductions series is a great microlearning example. The 33 ⅓ series is another that is focused on music, often short studies of individual albums from the career of a major artist.

I’ve read many of the books from both series. In each case, the important thing is to follow-up with the included resources to get that “multimedia” effect.

Taking notes is also highly recommended to create your own multimedia as you enjoy these short learning resources.

Three: Creator Community Platforms

Many YouTubers use platforms like Patreon or Locals to give their followers access to more content. 

For example, David Freiheit and Robert Barnes are lawyers who give popular talks on YouTube about breaking legal issues. However, for detailed case analyses and lessons from the history of law, they offer much more granular lessons in the VivaBarnesLaw community.

These lessons still tend to be short in nature, but they are collected in context and let those who want much more focused learning experiences have that opportunity on demand.

For those in the Magnetic Memory Method Masterclass, I offer a similar opportunity after joining. Our group focus sessions are a blast for those interested in going deeper on certain topics related to mnemonic strategies.

microlearning example with community

In our community, we send videos back and forth when focused on small microlearning aspects of the larger topic of memory improvement.

In both cases, the thing to note is that we are enjoying short and focused learning experiences with detailed outcomes. 

But we’re also drilling down from the general to the specific. It’s not an either/or situation, but a both/and supplemental opportunity to go deeper. 

Four: Language Learning Apps

Now, this is getting into dubious territory. 

You’re very unlikely to learn a language from an app. 

That said, I do personally use some language learning software in very short doses. Those that enable conversations with native speakers are great for small blasts of speaking practice that compounds in value over time. 

Five: Learning Sprints

Depending on the nature of the book or the course, you can sometimes benefit from going through programs in very small doses.

However, I find that the learning sessions need to be scheduled and consistent. 

For example, I read very hard books like On the Shadows of the Ideas by Giordano Bruno. In order to get through it, I read 5-10 pages per day.

The trick was that I read it every day until I was done. That way, my concentration was unbroken.

Likewise, I sometimes have to learn courses I’m only marginally interested in. I will take them in very small doses, always making sure I check in every day until I’m done. If too much time passes between learning periods, I wind up losing forward momentum and often never get started again.

a man with a black book

Microlearning Advantages and Disadvantages

The advantages of microlearning really assume that you’re the one shaping the experience with the material, and not having it forced on you. 

When this is the case, the advantages include:

  • Ability to choose the instructional material that is best for you at the time (book, video, interview, etc.)
  • Engagement can be short, yet still effective
  • You can sometimes reasonably skip around or skim read effectively
  • Hands-on activities will usually be included, or you can include your own (note-taking, mindmapping, using a Memory Palace, etc.)
  • You can quickly see if you’ve achieved your desired outcome
  • It’s easier to repeat smaller doses of content if needed, even if rote learning remains problematic

When it comes to disadvantages, you’re looking at:

  • Failing to understand due to lack of context
  • Often what you think is “fluff” is actually very important
  • You train your brain to be more and more impatient with valuable, long form content
  • You may miss out on references to powerful additional resources
  • There is no leisure or simple enjoyment of learning for learning’s sake
  • You may feel rushed, increasing your anxiety and defeating the purpose of learning
  • Your ability to form questions that will help you may be stunted
  • Critical thinking skills plummet due to “speed learning”
  • A fad has been forced upon you because it’s in vogue, holding your development back by many years

Do the pros outweigh the cons?

pros and cons

I’m not sure that’s the right question.

It all comes down to context and understanding that microlearning is not new. Learning in short doses has always been used. In fact, we know from active recall studies that variety is incredibly important. 

What matters above all is the context and how that aligns with your desired outcomes. If microlearning is not suitable for achieving the outcome, then it should be avoided. But if it is helpful, then balance is the key. 

3 Microlearning Strategies You Can Use to Rapidly Boost Your Intelligence

With all of the above in mind, let’s talk about some cool things you can do to learn in compact ways that pack a punch. 

One: The Memory Palace Technique

I mentioned Dave Farrow above. He’s one of many memory experts who has completed incredible learning feats. He even holds World Guinness Records. 

Common to all such memory experts is the Memory Palace technique.

It allows you to rapidly commit new information to memory using familiar locations like your home or work place. 

And if you don’t have much time to use this technique, no problem! It actually works better when you use it in short blasts. 

To learn more, please register in this free course:

Magnetic Memory Method Free Memory Improvement Course

Two: Mind Mapping

What is mind mapping

It’s an incredible way to translate what you’re learning into a visual medium. It helps you learn faster because you’re getting your hands involved and externalizing the information with shapes and colors. 

You can also combine mind maps with Memory Palaces.

Mind maps are also very useful for planning and generating new ideas. Although you might think that learning isn’t involved in these activities, it actually is.

For example, we learn how to plan by practicing planning, so if you’re struggling to keep a regular schedule, give this technique a try. 

Three: Reading Strategies

Let’s face it:

There’s a lot of junk out there about “speed reading.”

That’s why I wrote this piece on what it really takes to read faster.

One of my favorite techniques for reading more at a faster pace is called “interleaving.” 

Essentially, you read from three different books at the same time, switching between them in different patterns. 

I find that it works best with non-fiction books and study materials, but I sometimes do it with novels too. 

Novels for learning?

Yes!

You can learn a lot about writing and how to live a more interesting life from the great works of literature. And you can read them in microscopic sessions that still pack a punch. 

The Future of Microlearning

In Microlearning: Short and Sweet, the authors point out the most important aspect we all need to consider:

How do we measure the effectiveness of learning in snippets? 

For this important outcome, they recommend that you have a learning plan. 

You should also develop a self-questioning process that involves actively recalling the material you’re learning and thinking about it as deeply as possible. 

Self-testing is great as well, something anyone can do by writing summaries after each learning experience. Having a community that can help read what you’re producing and encourage you will be very useful to your progress. 

mastermind group

No matter what new microlearning strategies come along, nothing will replace the value of being with others in your community for learning faster.

Community matters, and we do this all the time in my Mastermind group, often sharing videos back and forth with one another.

All of which is to say, please don’t get confused by the notion of microlearning. 

The human brain does not evolve that quickly and we’re nowhere near learning as fast as this word implies. 

We still need old fashioned methods like multiple books, long from discussion and community. 

But there certainly are options for breaking things down and learning in short blasts.

So what do you say?

Do you feel more informed about microlearning?

Which microlearning example are you going to dive into next? Which ones did I miss?

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