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The Brain Science View on Why Microlearning Is Misused & Misapplied in Enterprise Learning Environments

Microlearning is taking the Learning and Development world by storm. Although many incorrectly identify microlearning as simply short duration training sessions, leaders in the field define microlearning as an approach to training that focuses on conveying information about a single, specific idea. The goal is to isolate the idea that is to be trained and then to focus all of the training effort on explaining that single idea with engaging and informative content. For example, with respect to sexual harassment, one might watch a brief piece of video content focused on the qualities of an inclusive leader, or ways to identify the symptoms of hostility in the workplace. The information would be presented in an engaging format that stimulates knowledge acquisition in the learner. The microlearning training goal is clear: train one idea succinctly with engaging content, and with as few “extras” as possible.

The Psychological and Brain Science of Microlearning: Training the Hard Skills of People Skills

Learning science—the marriage of psychology and brain science–suggests that microlearning is advantageous for at least two reasons. First, the emphasis on training a single idea as concisely and succinctly as possible, increases the likelihood that the learner will remain engaged and attentive during the whole microlearning session. Put another way, the likelihood that the learner’s attention span will be exceeded is low.

Second, the aim of microlearning to eliminate any ancillary information that is not directly relevant to the target idea, means that the cognitive machinery (i.e., working memory and executive attention) available to process the information can focus on the idea to be learned, with minimal effort being expended on filtering out irrelevant information that can lead the learner astray. The learner’s cognitive load will all be focused on the idea to be trained.

Because microlearning techniques are targeted at working memory, executive attention, and attention span in general, microlearning strongly affects processing in the cognitive skills learning system. The cognitive skills learning system in the brain recruits the prefrontal cortex, a region of cortex directly behind the forehead that mediates the learning of hard skills. These include learning rules and regulations, new software, and critical skills such as math and coding. Hard skill learning requires focused attention and the ability to process and rehearse the information. One learns by reading, watching, and listening, and information is ultimately retained through mental repetitions.

Thus, microlearning is optimal for hard skill training. Microlearning can, and appears to be, revolutionizing online eLearning of hard skills.

The Psychological and Brain Science of Microlearning and People Skills Training

I showed in a recent article that online eLearning approaches to corporate training use the same, one-size-fits-all, delivery platform and procedures when training hard skills and people (aka soft) skills. Although generally effective for hard skills training, especially when tools like microlearning are incorporated, this one-size-fits-all approach is only marginally effective at training people skills because people skills are ultimately behavioral skills. People skills are about behavior. They are what we do, how we do it, and our intent. These are the skills that one needs for effective interpersonal communication and interaction, for showing genuine empathy, embracing diversity, and avoiding situations in which unconscious biases drive behavior.

Behavioral skill learning is not mediated by the cognitive skills learning system in the brain, but rather is mediated by the behavioral skills learning system in the brain. Whereas the cognitive skills learning system in the brain recruits the prefrontal cortex, and relies critically on working memory and executive attention, the behavioral skills learning system in the brain recruits the basal ganglia, a subcortical brain structure, that does not rely on working memory and executive attention for learning. Rather the basal ganglia learn behaviors gradually and incrementally via dopamine-mediated error-correction learning. When the learner generates a behavior that is followed in real-time, literally with 100s of milliseconds, by feedback that rewards the behavior, dopamine is released, and that behavior will be incrementally more likely to occur next time the learner is in the same context. On the other hand, when the learner generates a behavior that is followed in real-time by feedback that punishes the behavior, dopamine is not released, and that behavior will be incrementally less likely to occur next time the learner is in the same context.

People skills are learned by doing and involve physical repetitions.

Microlearning: The Hard Skills of People Skills

So how effective is microlearning for people skills training? The answer is that microlearning is very effective for early epochs of people skills training when the focus is on learning the hard skills of people skills. It is also effective when learning to identify good and bad people skills. For example, if you are learning about the definition of empathy, are being shown a demonstration of unconscious bias, or are learning some of the advantages of a diverse workplace. In these cases, microlearning is very useful because you are gaining a cognitive understanding of various aspects of people skills.

When microlearning content is grounded in rich scenario-based training its effectiveness is enhanced. This follows because scenario-based training engages emotional learning centers in the brain that affect hard but also people skills learning. Rich scenario allow learners to “see themselves” in the training which primes the system for behavior change.

Microlearning: The Behavioral Skills of People Skills

Despite the effectiveness of microlearning approaches for training hard skills, and when supplemented with rich scenarios, for engaging emotion centers, people skills are ultimately behavioral skills. The ultimate goal is behavior change. All of the cognitive skills training is in the service of preparing the learner for effective behavior change.

How effective is microlearning for behavioral skills learning and for effective behavior change?

The behavioral science is clear. Behavior skills training is optimized when you train the learner on multiple different behaviors, across multiple different settings. Ideally, the learner has no idea what is coming next. They could be placed in a routine situation such as a weekly team meeting, or a non-routine situation in which an angry client is on the phone and the learner has only a few minutes to de-escalate the situation. In other words, if I have multiple leadership situations that I want to train, such as leading an effective meeting, giving an effective performance review, or evidencing active listening skills, then generalization, transfer and long-run behavior change is most effective if you randomly present the learner with these leadership settings. This teaches the leader to “think on their feet” and to be confident that they can handle any situation at any time. Put another way, it is optimal to train simultaneously, and in a random order, several people skill “ideas”. You don’t want to focus on one idea and just train it, then switch to another and just train it.

You also want to incorporate a broad set of environmental contexts. Although the context is not central to the skill to be trained, including a broad range of contexts leads to more robust behavior change. For example, during leadership training in which I am training effective performance reviews, it would be ideal for the office setting to change across scenarios from modern to retro, to minimalist. Similarly, it is best to practice with a range of employees who differ in age, gender, ethnicity, etc. The broader based the training the better.


Microlearning is one of the most important advances in corporate training in decades. Microlearning directly addresses the need for continuous on-the-job learning. Microlearning’s focus on a single idea with as little ancillary information as possible, is advantageous for hard and cognitive skill learning. It effectively recruits the cognitive machinery of working memory and attention and focuses these resources on the idea to be trained. It is time and performance effective.

On the other hand, microlearning is less effective for behavioral skill learning. Behavioral skills are learned by recruiting the basal ganglia and its dopamine-mediated incremental learning system. Behaviors are learned most effectively, and with greater generalization and transfer, when ancillary information is present and varies from training epoch to training epoch. This leads to a robust behavioral skill development that is less context sensitive, and more broad-based. It facilitates an ability to “think on one’s feet” and to obtain the confidence necessary to feel prepared in any situation.

As I have outlined in recent research reports, microlearning represents one of the many exciting new tools and technologies available to L&D clients. That said, one-size-does-not-fit-all and different tools and technologies are optimal for different learning problems. Learning scientists are needed to map the appropriate tool onto the appropriate learning problem.


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  1. […] forget and focus on presenting information within the attention span of the learner. These include microlearning, spaced training and testing. In talent management, the science of personality is growing in […]

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