The science behind microlearning: the forgetting curve
Learning and development can be one of those fields where there’s a lot of hype and buzz around particular concepts which ultimately turn out to be flash-in-the-pans.
Microlearning is rooted in scientific understanding about the way we learn and the way we retain information. It’s an old idea but one that is now being experimented with in new and exciting ways. It’s fundamentally different from those here-today-gone-tomorrow trends that we read a lot about in L&D media.
This fantastic blog article by Valamis goes into exceptional detail about the history and science behind microlearning and it’s well worth a read if you want a comprehensive guide to the theory.
As the article explores, microlearning has its roots in the work of influential experimental German psychologist Hermann Ebbinghaus who pioneered the study of memory way back in the late 19th/early 20th century.
Ebbinghaus was fascinated by learning and how people retain information. He conducted experiments exploring the process of learning and forgetting.
He came up with the concept of the ‘forgetting curve’. According to Ebbinghaus, people will typically forget around half of what they’ve learned within a few days of learning it, if they don’t revisit the information.
Through his experiments (in which he attempted to memorise thousands of nonsense syllables and see how many he could remember) he concluded that the rate at which someone forgets information depends on a number of factors including:
- How it was learned in the first place (the ‘mnemonic’ technique)
- How difficult the information was to learn
- Physiological factors, like stress level, sleep level, general health etc.
He ultimately hypothesised that the best ways to improve your memory when it came to learning were:
- Using mnemonic techniques (learning techniques designed to aid the retention of information)
- Repeating information that you have learned previously, based on actively recalling it
In other studies, he found that the attention span of children at school, and their capacity to learn, steadily decreased throughout the day, suggesting that the longer someone learns in one session, the less information they’ll ultimately be able to retain.
Microlearning takes into account all of these factors, presenting short bursts of information using mnemonic techniques and emphasising repetition, to ensure that the forgetting curve is reduced and more information is retained.
Benefits of microlearning
So, we now know what what microlearning is. What can it actually do for your organisation though? Here are some of the key benefits of microlearning over other formats of teaching and study:
1. It fits into modern work flows
Traditional learning, where you sit at a desk and listen to a lecturer or teacher deliver a lesson on a particular subject, is about as suited to the demands of the modern workplace as a horse and cart is to a motorway. These days, employees just don’t have the time to take significant chunks of time out of their workday to attend classroom-based study.
Microlearning is intrinsically suited to the fast-paced way that modern organisations work.
Thanks to the fact that microlearning is accessed online and is delivered in 5 minute to 10 minute bursts, employees don’t need to block out huge segments of their day to devote to learning. They can instead access learning anytime that they are free and complete it anywhere that they have access to an internet-capable device, like a smartphone, and an internet connection.
As a result, microlearning blends seamlessly into most modern work flows in an organisation.