If you’ve ever noticed your attention starting to drift midway through a lengthy lunch-and-learn presentation, you may already have a hunch that traditional modes of learning aren’t the most effective. Over the past few years, evidence has accumulated to support that observation. Recent studies have revealed the science behind the shortcomings of these methods — and also proven the efficacy of a new approach called microlearning. 

Instead of inundating learners with loads of information on a topic, microlearning teaches learners just enough knowledge to achieve a specific goal. There are many benefits to this approach. For one thing, microlearning enables employees to learn a new skill and immediately apply it — without disrupting their workflow. 

But convenience alone isn’t why microlearning works as well as it does. The reason microlearning is so effective is that it’s intentionally designed to support the way our brains process information. “Microlearning … [presents] key points of information delivered in a way that our brains work,” explains Axonify CEO Carol Leaman. Here are three ways microlearning leverages the brain’s natural learning systems.

1. Microlearning cooperates with our working memory

Learning science research shows that there’s a limit to the cognitive load our working memory can handle. You can imagine our working memory as a sink that drains into our long-term memory. If we turn on the tap of information faster than the sink can drain, that information won’t be retained. This limit to how much knowledge we can absorb at once explains why shorter videos are best for learner engagement

Udemy’s Smart Tips courses are built using microlearning principes: Each one consists of a series of short lectures ranging from two to seven minutes long. The brief length helps keep learners engaged and fits easily into a busy workday. 

2. Microlearning strengthens neural pathways 

Because microlearning can be embedded into the flow of work, it lends itself to hands-on, active learning. Active learning is twice as effective as traditional instructional methods because it reinforces concepts and strengthens new neural pathways. Neuroscience research demonstrates that our brains learn by organizing information into neural pathways, but without repetition, these pathways won’t become permanent. 

Microlearning fits neatly into downtime, so employees can apply skills immediately after learning them. Learners can pick up new skills in the time it takes for a file to render or a software program to install. They can complete their microlearning unit, return to work, and immediately apply what they’ve learned, strengthening the neural pathway. 

Our Smart Tips courses are designed to be immediately applicable. Instead of overwhelming the learner with dozens of tips on productivity, our Smart Tips: Productivity course breaks it down, with brief lectures on topics like inbox organization and creating a calm work environment. The learner can consume the lectures one by one, stopping to tame their inbox or organize their workspace before moving on to the next topic. 

3. Microlearning gives new information time to sink in

Turn-of-the-century German psychologist Hermann Ebbinghaus introduced the idea of spaced learning. The concept is simple: Learning is more effective when learning sessions are spaced out over time. Microlearning naturally fits into a spaced learning approach. Because microlearning sessions are so quick, it’s easy for learners to return to them at regular intervals, growing their new knowledge and committing concepts to long-term memory. 

Ebbinghaus demonstrated that spaced learning is a solution to the forgetting curve (our tendency to forget new information, which drops off most steeply after 20 minutes). When information is revisited again and again at regular intervals, the forgetting curve changes, and we’re better able to remember it. 

Our Smart Tips courses are intended to be consumed over time. Learners can absorb the information at their own pace, taking breaks to let it sink in.

Take a science-based approach to learning 

Now that you know why microlearning works so well — and why traditional learning doesn’t always deliver the best results — you can start finding ways to incorporate microlearning in your training programs. Taking a microlearning approach can be as simple as looking for opportunities to reduce the cognitive load by sharing smaller units of information or giving employees a chance to practice their new skills right away. 

Our learning science-based approach extends far beyond our Smart Tips courses. All of our content is optimized for engaging, active learning. Interested in exploring what Udemy for Business can do for your team? Request a demo.