Is Short Learning Enough?

There are hundreds of places to find quick bites of learning online, and that's appealing to time-crunched staffs. But how short is too short to ensure learning is retained and, most importantly, applied?

By Diane Belcher and Robert McKinney

Microlearning is our industry's latest buzzword, even though the practice of providing on-demand, quick performance support is not a new one. There are many valid and varied reasons for shortening learning; in today's complex business world, some are more pressing than others.

Some reasons relate to effectiveness: learning retention hinges on opportunities to learn new ideas and skills, practice them, and reflect. We can place smaller learning experiences closer to where new skills needed in the workplace. By taking advantage of the space between shorter learning bursts, learners can reflect on, and apply, lessons that they've learned, leading to much stronger retention down the line.

Other reasons are more practical and timely. In some ways, it's being driven by the dominance of millennials in the workplace, and their desire for learning that's virtual, engaging and on-demand. Employees are also extremely busy, and smaller bites of learning are more convenient. Finally, some claim that we need shorter learning experiences because the attention span of today's learner is shrinking. While research varies regarding attention span trends, it's clear that learners are more distracted than ever before in their fast-paced, complex work environments. They also fall victim to more daily disruptions to their attention, from the barrage of email messages, to the always-on accessibility of mobile technology.

Regardless, we, as learning leaders, need to continue to emphasize the "learning" in microlearning, rather than just the "micro." The explosion of players in the virtual learning market means that there are hundreds of places to find quick bites of learning online, and that's appealing to time and budget-crunched staffs. But, how short is too short to ensure learning is retained and, most importantly, applied?

While microlearning will certainly be a fixture in the world of learning and development professionals for a long time to come, it's not time to throw out longer learning experiences with the bathwater, or forget about the components that make for truly effective learning experiences. Striking a balance is key. When instituting a short-burst learning program, consider these reminders:

One size does not fit all.

Shorter learning can certainly make for more convenient, and even better, learning. But, there are limits to the benefits of shrinking the length of a learning program, depending on your purpose. For instance, if you're trying to get a learner's attention, make them curious, or remind them of a lesson previously learned, an extremely short experience, such as a one-minute video, can suffice. But, if your goal is loftier, such as trying to help a learner comprehend a complex concept or develop a new skill, the learning experience is better served by stringing together "chunked" content to create a learning path that includes opportunities to apply what they've learned.

For example, learning leaders at one global non-profit wanted to create a culture of continuous learning. However, with 12,000 employees across 190 countries and territories, implementing such a structure was daunting. After careful consideration, they created a learning path of key concepts in bite-sized portions, and then had learners apply those lessons in action learning projects. The results spurred on-the-job application in key topics like strategic thinking and change management.

Researchers place the limits of the average voluntary attention span at about 20 minutes. Lessons that fit within this window, while still providing an effective mix of learning, practice, and reflection, will be the most effective.

Don't underestimate reflection.

While learners are asking for shorter learning experiences, they are doing so because they want to be as time efficient as possible. Efficient learning must also be effective learning. Programs that include reflection as a dedicated piece of the learning process help learners improve within their roles. A recent study by Harvard Business School faculty Francesca Gino and Gary Pisano showed that groups whose learning experience was coupled with reflection consistently outperformed other groups tested. "When we stop, reflect, and think about learning, we feed a greater sense of self-efficacy," said Gino. "We're more motivated, and we perform better afterward."

For example, a leading design company augmented its face-to-face initiatives with opportunities for reflection and application. Those opportunities included conducting debriefs with managers, participating in live sessions to further explore concepts, watching videos, and participating in online programs. By providing learners with many options for reflection, the company has seen greater impact on performance in learners' everyday jobs.

Quality is king.

While learning length is an important factor when trying to develop busy managers, it's not the only factor, nor the most important one. For a short learning experience to have any impact, managers must pay attention to it, and information must move from their working memory into their long-term memory. To meet those requirements, you need to create a learning experience that is both relevant and engaging. No learning will occur if the experience is poor or off-target, regardless of how long it's designed to last.

Engaging learning experiences begin with high-quality content that is driven by and aligned with your organizations' strategic priorities. This continues by connecting to the learner's emotions. Sharing stories, for example, is a powerful way to activate feelings within learners, while also providing real ties to your organization. And using gamification techniques can spark healthy competition -- another factor in driving learner engagement. According to a study conducted by the University of Colorado on the impact of simulations and games in adult learners, participants in gamified e-learning experiences scored 14 percent higher in skill-based-knowledge assessments, 11 percent higher on factual knowledge, and saw a nine percent increase in retention rate. These design principles have been proven far more effective in learning retention than length alone.

For example, a global entertainment company added game elements to its leadership development programs. Leaders and managers earned points for successful completion of program elements based on the degree of complexity and the commitment required. Though there were prizes for the winners, innovation came out of the program whether participants won a prize or not. Many of these innovations were then implemented within the company, and generated tangible business results.

By focusing on engagement, context, and quality -- and not just length -- you will be much better positioned to ensure your programs can help your learners gain the critical capabilities they need to generate the business outcomes your organization expects from its leaders.

Diane Belcher is product director, enterprise learning, at Harvard Business Publishing. Robert McKinney is product director, cross-portfolio, at Harvard Business Publishing. Send questions or comments about this story to hreletters@lrp.com.

 

May 4, 2017
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