Hermann Ebbinghaus was a pioneer in the study of how people remember things. His research, published in 1885, made him one of the first to study memory. He ran a series of experiments in which people were given information at varied intervals. The question he sought to answer was whether it was better to give someone a lot of information all at once or to give them the same information in intervals spread out over time. How does this relate to implementing a micro content strategy as a learning method?
Ebbinghaus concluded that learners retain short bursts better than they retain large amounts of content delivered all at once. More succinctly, retention goes up with microlearning. To be made stickier, learning should be broken up into smaller, bite-size chunks. The retention increases further as the content is reinforced by repetition. Ebbinghaus’s ideas, first introduced by the Forgetting Curve, are encapsulated in what’s known as the Spaced Learning theory, established by Paul Kelley.
What Ebbinghaus codified is familiar to everyone who’s been involved in learning for any length of time. Of course, it’s good to know that there’s solid research behind what many of us already know to be true. His work has been confirmed by many subsequent research projects.
Microlearning ties into the wiring and function of the human brain. No matter the various learning styles and preferences, learning in smaller bites works. It is why more and more businesses turn to micro content strategies as learning methods.
The case is often made that the attention span of the average person is declining and that this societal change is a key driver behind the growing popularity of microlearning. Some studies support this perspective, and some don’t. Perhaps the attention span is the wrong focus. So, is a micro content strategy worth exploring?
Consider the world of entertainment. In the days of Hermann Ebbinghaus, entertainment was, for those who could afford it, delivered primarily through the theater or opera. This requires two (sometimes three) hours of concentration.
In the golden age of television, most shows were either thirty minutes or an hour in length. An hour of television was (and still is, for many networks) divided into four blocks of eleven minutes of content. Commercials consumed the time between. The pattern was locked and repeated for an average of four hours of watching per day. That’s 28 hours per week and eight weeks per year. The constant exposure to a repeated pattern meant that people soon learned to consumer information in eleven-minute blocks.
The rise of technology has challenged the eleven-minute blocks. People watching a YouTube video tend to watch only that which catches their attention in the first few seconds.
The main issue isn’t whether or not our attention spans have decreased. The more important consideration is the matter in which we consume information. Our advance in technology means we can quickly find what we want, and we move on just as quickly if the content doesn’t appeal to us.
Here’s another interesting fact about the eleven-minute time block. Eleven minutes is the average amount of time between interruptions for those who work at a desk—eleven minutes of concentrated time before someone stops by or a notification on our phone comes through. And even that eleven minutes gets broken up into matters of seconds with inbound emails, texts, and individual social-media habits.
It’s not surprising that microlearning and a micro content strategy fit well into today’s learning landscape. Microlearning aligns well with how we’ve come to consume information. Ebbinghaus knew this from his research and experimentation of human memory. We know this from our understanding of the role of technology and, perhaps, from observing the average teenager consume media.
Just In Time (JIT) And Micro Content Strategy
One further consideration for the why of implementing a micro content strategy is that of Just In Time (JIT). Toyota developed the concept in the 1970s as a way of eliminating time waste inside of the manufacturing process. In previous manufacturing systems, materials and parts would be built and then stored until the time they were needed. This involved the cost and time of transporting them to a storage facility, the storage facility itself, and then transportation back to production facilities when the materials and parts were needed. It doesn’t take much imagination to understand how the process standard before JIT was expensive in terms of time and finances.
The idea behind JIT is to receive what’s needed at the moment it’s needed. The application to learning is strong. Not only are we wired to retain better what we learn in smaller bites, but technology has changed our expectations for the availability of the information we seek. Arguments around facts (sports statistics, for example) end almost instantly because of the availability of information. Hours in a library, searching for reference materials is no longer necessary. This reality has changed both how we access information and our expectations of how quickly we think we should be able to get what we want when we want it.
Microlearning, and more specifically micro content strategies, support this expectation. Content that’s focused. Pragmatic. Bite-size. Stand-alone. Performance-based. These attributes in tandem with opportunities for learners to dive more deeply into content should they so desire make a powerful combination and match nicely with the expectations of learners who are no longer willing to accept situations in which they need to search long and hard for the content they need.
Whether someone is learning a series of steps in a sales process, learning how to maintain a machine, or learning what excellent customer service looks like, a micro content strategy is a strong contender for consideration by every learning team, whether in the corporate world, higher education, or the nonprofit sector.
If you want to discover more about microlearning, download the eBook How To Bring Microlearning Theory To Practice: Tips For L&D Professionals. Get to discover all the enticing microlearning tips for L&D professionals. Also, join the webinar to discover how microlearning impacted employees’ behavior and transformed organizational culture.