Microlearning and the Brain
Microlearning abounds in the learning and development sector. However, there is confusion around the term’s use, and many incorrectly identify it as simply “short duration training.”
Microlearning is more accurately defined as:
- An approach to learning that conveys information about a single, specific idea in a compact and focused manner.
- A learning technique that operates within the learner’s working memory capacity and attention span, providing just enough information to allow the learner to achieve a specific, actionable objective.
For example, if a personnel manager was interested in obtaining information about unconscious bias, they might watch a brief piece of video content focused on the definition of unconscious bias and how it can affect leadership behaviors in the workplace. The information would be presented in two to three minutes and would convey a single idea with as few “extras” as possible. The short duration, singular focus and limited extras ensure the learner’s attention span and working memory capacity are not exceeded.
The overwhelming majority of L&D vendors market microlearning as a major component of their offering, as well they should.
Microlearning offers an ideal approach for engaging the cognitive skills learning system in the brain. The cognitive skills learning system is one of at least three learning systems in the brain that includes the emotional learning system and the behavioral skills learning system. A schematic of these three systems, along with the relevant brain structures, is displayed below.
The cognitive skills learning system relies on the prefrontal cortex, is limited by working memory and attentional processes, and is the primary system in the brain for learning hard skills. Combine microlearning with testing and targeted retraining that is spaced over time and you have a tool that speeds the transition from short-term memory in the prefrontal cortex to long-term memory in the hippocampus and fights against the brain’s natural tendency to forget. This allows you to train hard skills for retention.
L&D vendors who embrace microlearning and training spaced over time often reference brain science as a guiding principle. This attribution is appropriate and is a major step forward in L&D. Based on my 30 years of experience in the psychology and brain science of learning, I firmly believe that microlearning represents one of the biggest advances in corporate L&D since the advent of e-learning.
Unfortunately, hard skills comprise only one skill set required in the corporate sector. One might argue, and corporate research would support the claim, that people (i.e., soft) skills and emotional learning, such as situational awareness, are also increasingly important. The #MeToo movement and incidents of unconscious bias suggest that people skills such as effective communication, leadership and embracing diversity are critical to corporate success. Similarly, situational awareness, such as the ability to “read” others and the current situation, as well as the ability to think on one’s feet and react appropriately, are also critical in the corporate world.
Brain Science of People Skills Learning
People skills are about behavior. They are what we do, how we do it and our intent. These are the skills one needs for effective interpersonal communication and interaction, for showing genuine empathy, embracing diversity and avoiding situations in which unconscious biases drive behavior. Behavioral skills learning is not mediated by the cognitive skills learning system in the brain, but rather by the behavioral skills learning system.
Whereas the cognitive skills learning system recruits the prefrontal cortex and relies critically on working memory and executive attention, the behavioral skills learning system recruits the basal ganglia, a subcortical brain structure that does not rely on working memory and executive attention for learning. Rather, the basal ganglia learn behaviors gradually and incrementally via dopamine-mediated error-correction learning. The basal ganglia links sensory representations with motor actions. When the learner generates a behavior that is followed in real time — within hundreds of milliseconds — by feedback that rewards the behavior, dopamine is released, and that behavior will be incrementally more likely to occur the next time the learner is in the same context.
On the other hand, when the learner generates a behavior that is followed in real time by feedback that punishes the behavior, dopamine is not released, and that behavior will be incrementally less likely to occur the next time the learner is in the same context.
Brain Science of Situational Awareness and Emotional Learning
Situational awareness involves understanding how information, events and actions around us impact our current situation and how changes might impact the future. An individual with strong situational awareness can “read” and “feel” the current situation and has the ability to predict one or two steps into the future. Situational awareness relies on emotional learning.
Situational awareness and emotional learning are about nuance, but nuance that is critical to success. Whereas one can have all of the facts and figures available and can have a strong behavioral repertoire, in the end they must extract the appropriate information and engage the appropriate behavior in each distinct situation.
The critical brain regions are the amygdala and other limbic structures. The detailed processing characteristics of this system are less understood than the cognitive and behavioral skills learning systems, but emotional learning is at the heart of situational awareness as emotional processing strongly affects both cognitive and behavioral skills learning.
Microlearning: Counterproductive to People Skills and Situational Awareness
Microlearning is highly effective for hard skills training because microlearning techniques map optimally onto the processing characteristics of the cognitive skills learning system and the prefrontal cortex and hippocampus that make up this system. In other words, it is the processing characteristics of these brain systems that drive the success of microlearning, not the other way around.
This is where many L&D vendors run afoul. As shown in the figure below, microlearning is effective at engaging the cognitive skills learning system. The question is whether microlearning is also effective at engaging the behavioral and emotional learning systems in the brain. The answer is “no.” In fact, microlearning is often counterproductive to people skills and situational awareness learning.
Behavioral skills learning is optimized when the learner trains on multiple behaviors across multiple settings. Ideally, the learner has no idea what is coming next. For example, executive leadership training on a routine situation such as a weekly team meeting should be followed by a non-routine situation in which an angry client is on the phone and the leader has only a few minutes to de-escalate the situation. It is the randomness and uncertainty about what is coming next that enhances generalization, transfer and long-run behavior change.
Notice that training on a broad range of situations with no prior warning is exactly the approach to take to train situational awareness and to effectively engage emotional learning centers in the brain. This teaches the learner to “think on their feet” and to be confident that they can handle any situation at any time. It also teaches them the cues that they need to read to improve their ability to predict the future.
You also want to incorporate a broad set of environmental contexts. Although the context is not central to the skill to be trained, including a broad range of contexts leads to more robust behavior change and is at the heart of situational awareness. For example, during executive leadership training on how to conduct effective performance reviews, it would be ideal for the office setting to change across scenarios from modern to retro to minimalist. Similarly, it is best to practice with a range of employees who differ in age, gender and ethnicity. The broader based the training, the better.
If you focus on one topic with no extras, train it, then focus on another topic and train it, as microlearning would demand, you fail to train the nuance and “think on your feet” abilities that are central to people skills and situational awareness.
One Size Does Not Fit All
The concept of microlearning has revolutionized corporate L&D. Microlearning is highly effective at engaging the cognitive skills learning system in the brain and training hard skills. However, it should not be viewed as a one-size-fits-all approach to learning.
People skills learning and situational awareness learning are mediated by the behavioral skills and emotional learning systems in the brain, respectively. The processing characteristics of these systems are not aligned with microlearning techniques. On the contrary, these systems welcome nuance, extended training and all of the “extras” that are so detrimental to hard skills training and are excised with microlearning.
Is microlearning here to stay? Yes. Should it be applied to train all L&D skills? No.
Todd Maddox is the founder and CEO at Cognitive Design and Statistical Consulting and a learning scientist/research fellow at Amalgam Insights Inc. To comment, email firstname.lastname@example.org.