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How "micro" does microlearning need to be?

Posted by Carla Torgerson, MEd, MBA on March 14, 2019 at 4:02 PM

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If microlearning can be any learning and the common thread is its length, then the next natural question is, “How long is a piece of microlearning?”  The answer really depends on the content you’re teaching and the use case. 

There are no hard and fast rules regarding length, but we generally think of microlearning as any learning content that can be consumed in about five minutes or less.  But, that five minutes is not a rule.  It’s just a guideline. The only “rule” is that microlearning content should be “just long enough” to give the learner what they need at that moment. 

Let’s consider some different situations and use cases and see how they might impact length.  There are times when good microlearning should probably be less than 5 minutes, and there are times when it should be a little longer than 5 minutes.

Less Than 5 Minutes

Keeping microlearning content to less than 5 minutes is generally best when:

  • The learners already have a solid foundation of knowledge in the subject at hand – If no new concepts need to be taught and you simply need to add new information into an existing mental framework, then you can keep it very short.

  • Learning content is to be used “just-in-time” – If the learners must be able to reference content in real-time to perform a specific task, then it’s best to keep it short. Cut right to the core of what the learner needs at the time, avoiding extraneous material.  There’s a sense of urgency, after all, so get right to it.  Wallet cards, short “How to” videos (perhaps even 2 minutes or less), and similar tools will get the job done.  A lot of performance support content would fall into this category.

  • Learning is informal, and not required – For informal, voluntary learning, people generally respond better to content that is 4 minutes or less.

More Than 5 Minutes

Microlearning can be longer than 5 minutes when the learners have no solid foundation of knowledge in the subject.  It’s not advisable to try to insert bits of microlearning content into a mental framework that doesn’t exist.  With “green” learners, you need to build that framework, and that takes more time.  If you can apply microlearning to a situation like that, then individual pieces of content could easily run 7-10 minutes.

Formal training—which is mandatory and tracked—can also be longer (generally speaking).  Examples of formal learning might be new hire training or a POA meeting.

The Bottom Line

A piece of learning content that is just five minutes long—but that’s not useful to your learners—is a waste of five minutes1. A piece of learning content may need to be trimmed to three minutes to give learners just what they need.  Or, it may need to be expanded to eight minutes to give the depth and clarity the learner needs to properly grasp the content. So again, the five-minute length is a guideline.

What’s Coming Next?

In our next installment, we’ll explore how you can apply microlearning to prepare learners before a learning event.

 1. Thanks to Diane Elkins, owner of Artisan E-Learning, who has been saying this for years!

Topics: microlearning