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Think Small: Explore Microlearning

October 05, 2016

By Wayne Nelson & Tori Reany

In today’s fast-paced world, students are exposed to many competing demands on their time and attention. Even when sitting in classrooms, their concentration wanders. Outside of the classroom, they are inundated with information coming from a variety of sources. In order to combat as well as exploit these characteristics, many people are designing and implementing microlearning approaches to create an alternative learning environment.

Microlearning comes in various forms, but typically involves providing content, learning activities, and assessments in small chunks that are often embedded within blended/hybrid courses. Also known as learning objects (Wiley, 2001), microlearning methods and materials address student learning difficulties by delivering a little information at a time, in the moment that it is most needed for task performance, with the ability to repeat and practice the embedded skill(s). This approach supports new brain science findings which show that “people learn and remember better when learning is spaced over time and key skills and content are repeated multiple times” (Boller, 2015).

Microlearning happens when any brief and targeted content item that spans between 3 to 6 minutes is presented to students. Microlearning objects (also referred to as microcontent or microlectures) are focused on specific learning outcomes that address specific topics or skills. Microlearning works, in part, because the presentation of content and assessment of learning is distributed across time, rather than organized in large blocks. Blocking content tends to force students to process large amounts of information, and then, usually much later, prove their retention of the information through tests and other activities. Perhaps some practice with feedback is offered between presentation and testing in order to assist skill development, but often in traditional classes this aspect is minimal.

A recent study (Knapp & Proske, 2015) showed that distributed interactions with content (in the form of questions about the information being presented) improved recall of information presented in an online learning environment, compared to interactions occurring over larger blocks of content. In general, a fine-grained approach (smaller content chunks followed by questions about the content) resulted in 28% less learning time, and 20% better performance on recall tests. Learners who experienced a fine-grained approach also performed 8% better than learners in a blocked content condition on a comprehensive recall test at the end of the study period.

Microlearning content is best developed for situations where content can be broken into small pieces that are actionable. Design considerations for microlearning include time (relatively short student effort to process the information), content (very small units and narrow topics), curriculum (small parts of overall curriculum), media (print, digital, pictorial, video, audio), and learning type (e.g., practice, reflection, action, etc.).

One course at SIUE, (Quantitative Reasoning 101) is currently in the pilot stage of implementation after a major redesign. Course objectives were developed to assure relevance to the student’s work, home, or school life.  The goal of the redesign was to increase student learning, retention of the information, and mastery of mathematical skills which can be applied in the student’s life.  The design emphasizes the presentation of material in a context that is relevant to the student, a consistent cycle of student activities and expectations, and delivery of content in smaller segments that provide immediate feedback and the opportunity to master the concepts one objective at a time.

Traditional, face-to-face lectures have been transformed to shorter videos presented in an online blended/hybrid version of the course. A new textbook and workbook that provide no worked examples were chosen so that students do not passively read the text and problem solutions, but instead actively participate by working examples as they watch video segments. Each lesson is broken into multiple videos that each cover one learning objective. Students are given immediate feedback after watching video segments by completing pre-lab “Did You Get It?” questions. After interacting with the video content, students attend a “lab” where they collaborate to complete additional questions/problems related to the content, and then individually complete post-lab assignments using an online homework system, Connect Math. This cycle of viewing microlecture, completing pre-lab activities, working through lab activities, and post-lab assignments is consistent through the semester. Students know exactly what is expected of them.  Since the pilot is currently in progress, data regarding effectiveness for student learning and satisfaction is not available. Contact Tori Reany ( if you would like more information about the project and its outcomes.


Boller, S. (2015). Is microlearning a myth? Learning Technologies Blog: Association for Talent Development. Retrieved from

Knapp, F., & Proske, A. (2015). Distributing vs. blocking learning questions in a web-based learning environment. Journal of Educational Computing Research, 53, pp 436-458.

Wiley, D. A. (2001). Instructional use of learning objects. Bloomington, IN: Agency for Instructional Technology.

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