It’s truly amazing that people haven’t quite figured it out yet. Life-forms have been teaching and learning since the birth of the neuron, and yet we still haven’t, quite, figured it out. While there are lots of culprits, I’d like to talk about how you can improve the delivery process; specifically, let’s think about a granular approach to learning information: microlearning.

If you have a staff filled with minds like Sherlock Holmes’, great! Most of us, though, aren’t walking-reference-books, so we need to think hard about how we teach, or we risk having to repeat the information over, and over, and over.

The Problem

77% of knowledge and skills learned in training sessions is lost within 6 days (source: Festo Didactic Training & Consulting Great Britain 2014). So it follows, front-loaded training will never stick in the minds of your learners. Teach me something Day 1 that I won’t need until Day 31, and I’m guaranteed to forget it by the time I get home. If you can focus on giving me what I need as it comes along, I’ll be much more likely to remember it, and you’ll be happier knowing that instead of being pseudo-adequate in six areas, I’m solid and independent in one or two.

People are great at remembering what they need to know, but not at holding on to everything we might need later on. Spending hours and hours training in a conference room, or off at a weekend-long training retreat, will result in extremely low retention rates. If you can give people what they need, when they need it, you’ll be amazed at how much they hold on to.

What is microlearning?

Fairly true to it’s name, microlearning is defined by eLearning Industry as “a way of teaching and delivering content to learners in small, very specific bursts. The learners are in control of what and when they’re learning.”

What that often looks like, is to begin onboarding with an overview of responsibilities and expectations, and then as new responsibilities, concepts, or tasks are introduced to the learner, the information they need is housed somewhere they immediately reference and utilize it. Having this available for the learner allows them to learn at their pace, and keeps others from having to answer lots of questions.

What are the advantages to this?

Learning theory nerds love the above format, because our brains remember well when fed little bits of information at once. They remember even better when we can apply what we learn right away, and even better when we actually want to learn something, as opposed to having it forced on us.

“But…why?” you ask.

Little bits at once allow us to encode more clearly

When you get tons of information in a short period of time, your brain will eventually have to let some things go. This is simple memory theory. You fill up a small basket with information as it comes in, and if the proper steps are taken, that information gets copied over to your brain. Too much at once, and you risk the basket spilling over like an unwatched pot, or if it becomes too much of a project, your brain may just dump the basket. In that case, you can lose a large amount of what you were trying to learn.

If you’re overwhelming the learner with information, you’re going to have to teach them all over again.

Encode and Apply

It seems obvious, but this is a really important step that gets left out all the time when companies front-load. Memory is all about strengthening and reinforcing neural paths. Too much time between encoding information and actually using it, and the pathway weakens. We can, effectively, forget something entirely by not using it soon enough after learning it.

In an effort to avoid this, microlearning asks us to learn as we need the information, allowing us to encode the learned info and apply it with almost no time in between. By creating a good system for people to learn as they go, you’re allowing the start of a strong connection, and better learned information.

We learn best when we want to learn (The Randy Moss Principle)

Unlike the Vikings’ great, it’s not a selfishness in people that causes this, instead, it has to do with the previous point. If we can’t see how new information is going to help us, we’re unlikely to want to learn it, and we won’t make as much of an effort to hold on to it. However, even if we do try to remember it well, without any background on how it will help us, the information has nothing to connect to in our minds.

Remember, memory is all about pathways. The more existing memories we already have to link new information to, the better. If you wait to teach something to someone until it’s become relevant, now they’ve seen the reason they need to know something, and the “how is it done?” neural groups have a “why I need it” neural group to connect to.

This is the kind of topic that could warrant a much longer write-up, so if you have any questions, comments, or ideas for follow-ups, let me know in the comments. I’d be glad to follow up.