What’s Good and What’s Bad About Microlearning

July 10, 2017

There are good things about microlearning, like meeting learner's expectations, but there are bad things too, like potentially creating adequacy instead of mastery.


For those who don’t know, microlearning is exactly what it sounds like – small bits of learning someone generally consumes when facing a problem. An example of microlearning would be a professional looking up how to animate a slide in PowerPoint for a presentation later that day.

Microlearning also happens to be the hottest new trend in workplace learning, as learning and development pros are increasingly looking for providers of microlearning content. But is it a fad, or is it something that’s here to stay?

Almost certainly the latter – microlearning isn’t going anywhere. That said, there are some drawbacks to it as well.

Here’s an honest look at what’s good and what’s bad about microlearning.

What’s good about microlearning

Let’s start with the positive. The main benefits of microlearning are:

1. It’s the most common way people learn.

The biggest pro, right at the top. Research shows people learn when they need to – maybe they have a pressing issue or something they can’t solve. And generally, it’s a relatively minor issue they need to solve, like how to share a Google doc with a non-Google user, for example.

That’s where microlearning fits in perfectly. You don’t want an in-person session to tell you how to do a simple task, when a three-minute video will suffice.

2. It’s what learners expect.

People today are accustomed to searching for something and quickly finding an answer. And the average attention span has dropped drastically over the years, meaning people want that answer quickly.

That’s where microlearning fits it: it meets that expectation, which increases learner satisfaction.

3. It’s on-demand, empowering learners to learn whenever.

For microlearning to be successful, it has to be on-demand. This is a benefit to L&D folks and learners alike, as it empowers learners to learn whenever they want and helps L&D build an #AlwaysBeLearning culture.

4. It ensures people are getting good information.

Because microlearning is such a common use case, having microlearning content you trust is a great way to upskill your employees. Rather than searching Google or asking a friend and getting information that might or might not be correct, having strong, microlearning content means your people are always getting the right information.

5. It’s cost-effective.

Offering microlearning content to your people is obviously much cheaper than sending them to a course every time they have an issue. And, considering the commonality of microlearning, there’s good ROI in having microlearning content.

6. It’s a great way to introduce people to your macrolearning content.

Microlearning can be a great way to advertise your macrolearning content – yes, you solved a small problem on building a PowerPoint slide. But, if your learning platform is set up correctly, they’ll also see a great course you have on giving a great presentation they could take later.

Of course, this is dependent on your learning platform showing off the types of courses you offer and recommending courses that are relevant to the learner's microlearning need.

What’s bad about microlearning

There are some potential drawbacks to microlearning as well, particularly if microlearning isn’t positioned correctly. They are:

1. It addresses symptoms, instead of core problems. 

Microlearning can be like taking an aspirin for a headache each day. Sure, it might make the headache go away, but the real solution is to find out why you are having headaches each day.

In many cases, the aspirin is fine – on small technical issues sometimes a quick fix is all a person needs. But, if a person is trying to “microlearn” more complex issues, like communication or leadership, it’s not going to work. In those cases, more in-depth learning is likely needed to fix the core issue.

2. It can set the expectation that everything can be learned quickly.

You can’t become a great manager by watching a three-minute video on management. But microlearning can lead to that expectation and cause people to question why more in-depth learning is needed.

3. It can lead to adequacy, instead of mastery. 

Microlearning can make you okay at something. Let’s say you wanted to get into video editing, for example – you could learn by jumping into iMovie and searching for an answer every time you got stuck. Doing this, you’d become passable at video editing, but you'd never become a master.

Mastery requires macrolearning. That doesn’t have to mean going back to school – in-person trainings, full-length eLearning courses or some combination of the two can do the trick. But, to become a great manager or really master any new skill, you need to dedicate real time to the issue.

4. It rarely inspires people to learn for the sake of learning.

A great culture of learning at any organization should inspire people to learn for the sake of learning. That almost never happens with microlearning – people generally don’t search for a solution “just because.” They search for issues when they are stuck, and that’s it.

And that can make learning feel like something people have to do, as opposed to want to do.

So, should you have microlearning content at your organization?

All L&D teams should offer some form of microlearning content. It’s such a common use case that providing strong, bite-sized content is a way to build both learner satisfaction and upskill your employees.

It’s also a great way to get people into your learning platform. By using it to microlearn, your learners will see the options within your learning platform to macrolearn as well (if the platform is appropriately set up).

But you need to be careful that’s not all you offer or that’s all you emphasize. To build a true culture of learning, you want people to engage in both microlearning and macrolearning. Only emphasizing microlearning can actually have a negative affect – people will forgo mastery for adequacy and potentially gain a negative outlook on learning.

Ultimately, a winning L&D strategy will have great microlearning content so people can get good information on pressing issues. But the true measure of an L&D team is its ability to inspire its people to go beyond that and engage in macrolearning as well.