Learning & Development, Technology

What You Need to Know About Microlearning and the Brain

Microlearning has been on many notable mobile and e-learning trends lists for the last year or so. And if you’re a learning and development (L&D) professional, you’ll need to implement it this year if you want to continue to outpace your competition.


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Before you implement microlearning, however, you’ll want to know more about when it works with the nuances of how the human brain works and when it doesn’t. Read more about what you need to know about microlearning and the human brain below.

Microlearning Primarily Reinforces Already Retained Knowledge

In-depth learning can’t be implemented via microlearning tools or platforms because well-designed microlearning is implemented with short bursts of content that engage the learner’s shorter working memory capacity and attention span.
This means that microlearning should never be implemented for more complex learning material or for learning material that is completely brand new to a learner. Rather, it should be implemented when learners’ already retained knowledge needs to be reinforced, refreshed, or assessed.
Read “4 Limits to Microlearning to Consider” for more details behind the limitations of microlearning.

Microlearning Is Ideal for Hard Skills Training

Research indicates that microlearning is ideal for engaging the cognitive skills learning system in the brain, which relies on the prefrontal cortex, also the primary system in the brain for learning hard skills.
However, microlearning for hard skills should still only be used when reinforcing already retained knowledge or previously encountered learning material.
For instance, if a learner is taking an e-learning course for computer programming, microlearning content can help him or her reinforce and practice the computer programming and coding skills he or she has already encountered throughout the e-learning course via short practice assignments or assessments.

Microlearning Is Not Ideal for Soft Skills Training

Microlearning engages learners’ shorter working memory and prefrontal cortex and does not engage their basal ganglia, a subcortical brain structure that allows people to learn appropriate behavioral patterns via dopamine-mediated error correction.
So, microlearning is not ideal for course material for learning things like communications skills or emotional intelligence skills or for unconscious bias and diversity training programs. Such soft skills training programs are usually better for learners when they’re implemented in person and they can interact with real people in real time.

Microlearning Is Counterproductive to Situational Awareness

Likewise, astute situational awareness also relies on more emotionally based and behaviorally based learning, which cannot be learned via microlearning.
And effective managers and leaders require highly developed situational awareness skills so that they know when and how to properly respond to certain situations that arise unexpectedly, often in different physical or environmental settings—situations that include highly stressful or emotionally charged nuances and situations entailing safety concerns or serious emergencies.
Essentially, microlearning is not ideal for leadership development and training or for emergency management training, and research has indicated that it is actually counterproductive in such situations.
As you implement microlearning this year, be sure to keep in mind when it works with the natural nuances and functioning of the human brain, as outlined above, and when it doesn’t.