Imagine someone hands you a thick, heavy textbook and then tells you that, in two months, there will be a quiz on the information it contains. That feels pretty daunting. Now imagine that someone hands you the same textbook but tells you that they will quiz you weekly on the material contained in each chapter. More manageable, right?
That’s the basic principle behind microlearning — an emerging method in e-learning based on the idea that smaller “bites” of information are more easily absorbed and retained than large chunks. Microlearning can be especially useful in teaching a science curriculum that covers both broad and technical concepts. Essentially, microlearning breaks information into what researchers have called “small and understandable fractions.”
Quick, digestible lessons are essential to e-learning because students have more information vying for their attention than ever before. (The average microlearning lesson is between 1 and 15 minutes long, and usually on the shorter side of that range.) However, length is not the only thing that defines microlearning; microlearning chunks are also focused on a single objective or topic. This gives students a sense of self-direction as they make connections between lessons rather than an instructor drawing conclusions for them.
Traditional Learning Versus Microlearning
Besides its shortened length, microlearning has other core differentiations from traditional learning. Traditional learning is usually structured in modules grouped around a subject or theme and presented or written by an expert. However, each microlearning unit is focused on a single idea or concept and is co-created with learners through internet interactivity. (Generally, each of these units will have a unique permalink that students can access individually for review and retrieval.)
Students generally need to supplement learning objects with other information when learning via traditional models to understand a concept fully. For example, one can’t understand the idea of fermentation without understanding how yeast cells function. But with microlearning, each unit is entirely self-contained and can be grasped with no other learning tools. A microlearning “bite” cannot be further divided without losing its meaning.
Microlearning’s structure has a profound effect on the way students engage with information. It invites students to be proactive explorers of content — seeking, digesting and repeating information in ways that are practical and relevant to their goals. Social interaction, sharing of knowledge and creation of new content are encouraged as part of microlearning. Traditional learning is typically more passive: a teacher or expert frames and delivers information to a non-participatory audience. Not only does this invite distraction, but it doesn’t put students in the educational driver’s seat.
How Microlearning Improves Retention
Research has shown microlearning can improve the retention of scientific or technical information. A 2018 study published in the International Journal of Educational Research Review involved students enrolled in a six-week computer class; half of them were taught using traditional learning. The other half were taught using microlearning methods. Results showed the students who learned via microlearning had an 18% better pass rate than the group taught via traditional methods.
Because microlearning lessons can also be replayed or repeated, they often improve knowledge retention over periods of time. This combats the Ebbinghaus “forgetting curve,” the idea that the ability to recall relevant information decreases over time and that learners remember just 24% of material after 31 days if no repeat learning takes place. Returning to specific science lessons to reinforce information in the memory combats this process of forgetting information.
There is also evidence to suggest that the self-directed nature of some microlearning interfaces can also improve retention. Microlearning platforms that customize the science curriculum to each learner allow for more individual control over the learning process.
If the goal is for science education to have practical applications to students’ lives, microlearning is a useful tool. Microlearning generally finds its best audiences when learners seek to solve practical problems rather than understand theoretical framework. Encouraging learners to find personal meaning and connection in science lessons is just one way that a microlearning framework makes scientific information “real.”