Why and how teachers can use microlearning in the digital classroom

Ways to ensure student attainment and engagement remain high while they are studying online

Researchers and educators have always tried to optimise how we consume knowledge by looking at the realities of the learning brain. We now know that students learn better when learning is spread out over time. This is called the spacing effect – a term coined by the renowned memory scientist Hermann Ebbinghaus. If you give students a list of historical dates to memorise, they will retain it much better if they try to recall the dates in a few sessions rather than memorise them all at once.

Educators have put the spacing effect to good use through microlearning, which is the pedagogical practice of dividing learning into easily digestible nuggets of information. Contrary to popular belief, microlearning has been around for quite some time, and many teachers have been delivering lessons in a microformat without calling it so (using flashcards is an excellent example of microlearning).

The philosophy behind the concept is that the effects of short attention spans and the poor absorption of new information can be counteracted with bite-sized lessons that are clearly explained and engaging. Microlearning achieves this in two major ways: by turning the attention to the most important ideas that students should remember and offering an easy way for them to repeat the information at certain intervals so it won’t be forgotten.

The global pandemic has shifted the way young people learn towards an online, or at least a blended, learning environment. Therefore, the new characteristics of this learning environment must be considered when deciding on teaching methods. So let’s explore a few different ways microlearning can ensure students’ attainment and engagement remain high when studying online.

Improving long-term retention with bite-sized lessons

Simply put, familiarity with a subject accelerates the learning process. The more a student knows about a topic before learning about it, the faster they make connections between the main ideas. A key aspect of microlearning is that it enhances the long-term retention of information by bringing attention to what really matters and familiarising students with a lesson’s main ideas.

Using microlearning, teachers can deliver five or 10-minute video lessons on the key ideas that students should remember before explaining the more intricate details of a topic, making them understand the meaning before going into the details. In other words, the main ideas become familiar, which increases the chances of students remembering them.

A biology teacher could start the lesson by explaining why photosynthesis is important, for example, then follow up with an explanation of the main components involved in the process, and then delve into the more complex chemical reactions, all by fragmenting a big lesson into five minute units.

Reducing cognitive load for students 

The curriculum can be very demanding for some students, with so much new information having to be processed and remembered daily, not to mention the switch between online and face-to-face learning activities. Sometimes this can lead to student burnout due to cognitive overload.

Incorporating microlearning can help prevent this issue before it becomes a problem. By breaking lessons into chunks with one or two learning objectives each, teachers are making the information much easier to digest and comprehend.

A 40 or 50-minute class can be divided into logically connected micro-lessons that are organised hierarchically. Instead of jumping from topic to topic, the difficulty increases once students get a good grasp of the key ideas that are presented in each micro lesson. You can also make it easier for students by showing them how to take notes more efficiently and uploading learning materials on a learning platform that can be accessed often.

Breaking the cramming habit

We’ve all been ‘guilty’ of cramming before tests or exams. It might help students pass a test once or twice, which gives the impression that it’s a successful method. In reality, not only does it bring unnecessary stress, but it’s also a guaranteed way for students to quickly forget what they’ve learned.

Spaced repetition is an evidence-based technique to improve learning that can be implemented with the help of microlearning. This breaks the bad habit of cramming since students simply retain more information in study sessions separated by breaks. To make this possible, micro-lessons allow students to repeat the same information over the course of a few days, weeks, or even months.

Teachers can use an online learning platform to quiz students on different topics on days and weeks after the initial learning event took place to help them better recall topics. Plus, it’s much easier to track student progress using a microlearning format than wait a couple of weeks to test that knowledge.

Varying delivery formats for student engagement

Don’t let the name deceive you: microlearning doesn’t mean delivering superficial pieces of information. In fact, teachers can greatly vary the format of their online lessons to get their point better across. Students can read a paragraph and discuss the main ideas, comment on an image, watch a short video, listen to a short audio guide, participate in a learning game.

“Don’t let the name deceive you: microlearning doesn’t mean delivering superficial pieces of information. In fact, teachers can greatly vary the format of their online lessons to get their point better across”

For example, you can use a microlearning game – an online tool or print out flashcards. Students should work together in small groups or pairs to quiz one another. This can take five or 10 minutes at most. Edtech can really help you organise the learning content to be accessed online. To speed things up, teachers can also create quizzes that can be corrected automatically.

Help students learn wherever they are  

The purpose of microlearning is for teachers to create and curate easily digestible and short content that students will be motivated to access wherever they are: at school, or at home, in remote or hybrid learning environments.

To make reviewing more efficient, students can set up a learning schedule with the help of the teacher. With microlearning, all they need is 30-minute study sessions with breaks in between. For this to actually happen, you can upload the learning materials to a centralised library. You can also track their progress and see who accessed the lessons. As a bonus, some teachers like to add fun learning games that students of all ages can enjoy, such as gaining points and badges for mastering different topics.

Key takeaway

All in all, microlearning has a place in all types of learning environments and is suitable for all ages. The most important takeaway for teachers is to break bigger lessons into smaller units and focus on the main ideas of a lesson first. Perhaps the most significant advantage of microlearning is that teachers can show students how to learn more effectively through study sessions and breaks, which can undo the cram-test-forget cycle.

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