Microlearning – the Science Behind It

The microlearning method makes use of short and to the point instances of learning to drive employee development and job performance, based on a topic or problem. Microlearning is appropriate when a learner aims to do something specific or requires a snippet of knowledge. The method is centred around the theory that short, repetitive learning increases long-term retention – but what is the science behind microlearning?

Well, microlearning significantly affects processing in the cognitive skills learning system. This is because microlearning techniques are targeted at working memory and attention span. The learning system then recruits the prefrontal cortex, a part of the cortex that mediates the learning of hard skills, such as learning new regulations and skills like maths and coding. Focused attention and the ability to process and rehearse information are essential to learning hard skills. Thus, microlearning is an efficient method for hard skills training.

Microlearning itself has been popularised recently due to the widespread usage of mobile devices and smart tablets, etc, in addition to apps that provide us with the ability to apply the microlearning theory into our everyday lives.

Combining Microlearning with spaced learning (developed by Hermann Ebbinghaus) provides a powerful partnership. Ebbinghaus found that progressive injections of new knowledge have a rapid memory decay in the brain, and his spaced theory suggests that ‘learning is better when the same amount of study is spread out over periods of time than it is when it occurs closer together or at the same time.’ Thus, Ebbinghaus found that repeated practice would allow people to retain more knowledge with each repetition. Microlearning mitigates cognitive overload, and facilitates long-term retention, while simultaneously increasing the likelihood that the learner will remain engaged and attentive during the microlearning session.

Furthermore, Ebbinghaus quotes, ‘overlearning – that is, continuing to practice and study even when we think that we have mastered the material’ often prevents us from realising that to retain information in the long-term, breaks and repetition are critical. Long-term memory can store a vast amount of information for long periods of time, contrary to the short-term and sensory memory which have a limited capacity. This is the reason why learners’ brains need breaks or spacing between each instance of learning, so that information can be processed and moved from the Short-term memory into the Long-term memory. This is why studying over long periods of time helps people to perform better as opposed to ‘cramming’!

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