Challenges with Adult Learning… Using Microlearning to Effectively Educate


Many employers and organizations seek training that is inexpensive, relevant to their industry/marketplace, focused on the goals of the employees as well as the organization, and can be delivered with minimal interruption to productivity.  Employees desire training that is immediate, focused, and specific to their needs. How can a course meet all expectations?  Understanding how adults learn (and the associated challenges) is a key component to determining best course content and delivery options to meet the varied expectations.


Image/Infographic credit to Bersin and Associates

Many adult learners are eager to learn; especially when the curriculum aligns with their career goals or is relevant to their current role. Adult learners do not want to waste time learning material that is not job specific or part of their career path.  Adults want courses that are topic specific, inexpensive, readily available, easy to understand and can be used as a reference when needed.  Herein lies the challenge with educating adults. Classes need to engage the adult learner throughout, as the average attention span for an adult is 90 seconds.  An adult is capable of learning using a combination of three learning styles:  visual, auditory, and kinesthetic (hands-on). This begs the question, how can a course incorporate all three learning styles and still meet the expectations of the employer and employee (be inexpensive, readily available, easy to update, topic specific, and applicable)?

Traditional Training

Traditional instructor-led training courses follow the 90/20/8 rule.  This means that an instructor has a learner’s full attention for the first eight minutes of a training course.  After 20 minutes of instruction, there is a steep decline in attention unless the learner is engaged.  The instructor has completely lost the learner between 60-90 minutes, again unless they have been engaged during this time using an interactivity or group exercise. But engaging with learners every 20-30 minutes is challenging.   This contributes to the forgetting curve (see Figure 1), which illustrates that adults forget 90% of what is taught within 30 days of completing a training course.  If reinforcement of the learning outcomes is not provided, the information is not retained. Note the decline in the retention of information over time in Figure 1.  If reinforcement of the information or an opportunity to use the information outside the classroom does not exist, the information (and any expectations of changes in behavior) is lost.


Traditional training courses contain a lot of overview, an agenda crammed with content that may or may not be based on behavioral learning outcomes, and contain multiple areas of focus.  These courses are usually taught in a classroom over a couple hours or over a few days. The question becomes, “How can an organization improve retention of the information taught in a course, engage the learner throughout the learning process, have the course readily available to the learner, and lower the cost of the training?” The answer may lie in a concept known as microlearning.


The use of microlearning to train employees is an option that is growing in organizations that are short on time, have limited resources, and see constant changes in their work force and work environment.  Using microlearning to educate employees saves time, money, and provides training “on demand” or just-in-time.  Microlearning is learning in short increments.  It is quick and accessible via Smart phones, tablets, computers and can be published as a video, blog, game, or podcast.  Microlearning courses are short and focused on a specific learning outcome; they are not meant to cover more than one topic.  Microlearning is also self-contained.  This means the curriculum contains all the information a learner needs to comprehend the topic.  A microlearning course can be a standalone curriculum, which means it is the sole means of providing training on a specific subject or it can be part of a curriculum on a specific topic.

For example, the articles and videos available on KTA University can be collated and used as a microlearning source. Say that an individual requires specialized training on coating inspection instrument use. A supervisor can search for all content on the site related to that subject, break it into logical learning “chunks” (described later), establish learning outcomes, assign materials to a learner, and evaluate their comprehension after each segment is completed, based on the learning outcomes.

Microlearning can be as part of a larger curriculum and used during different stages of the learning cycle.  Properly designed training courses address four stages of learning:  Pre-training or any time prior to conducting the course; During classroom instruction; Course conclusion; and Behavior Change.  The use of microlearning during one or all four stages serves to supplement the content of the course and reinforce learning.  This can be done via video, written content, a quiz, or a short scenario to assist the learner in applying taught skills to work performance.

Using Microlearning as a standalone course also satisfies the need for just in time training.  The course focuses on one subject and one learning outcome.  It is not the same as eLearning, since eLearning frequently includes both the need to know and the nice to know information within a course.  Instead, microlearning focuses only on the need to know information, thus eliminating confusion over what is important and what is not important.  When using microlearning as the sole means of education, the instructor and/or instructional designer need to ensure the material can be taught within a very brief time period (e.g., five minutes).  As a result, microlearning is not always a solution, as some training requires comprehensive coursework.  Attempting to streamline content to fit within a shorter time frame (to conform to the microlearning model) may create learning gaps or missed steps to a work process.

Establishing a Microlearning Environment

Content curation is the first step to incorporating microlearning into an organization’s curriculum or course library.  First, course content is categorized as just in time learning or comprehensive.  As stated earlier, microlearning should not be used to replace traditional learning for comprehensive courses, but can be used for supplemental learning.  Just in time training is designed to be administered when the training is needed, when it is most relevant to the learner’s role, and when the learner is receptive to being trained (i.e., they don’t want to wait until a training class can be scheduled).

The best approach to implement the microlearning concept is to take the content of a curriculum, establish the learning objective, identify the learning outcomes, and chunk the information by the expected outcomes.  Chunking means the course content is broken down into small pieces of information.  By implementing microlearning; the concepts are further broken down into what is essential to the learner.  The instructor determines the optimum learning method for the content.  This can be via a video, a podcast, a case study/scenario, or a reading assignment.  Once the learning method has been identified, the curriculum can be created and implemented.

Microlearning is not a new trend.  Examples of microlearning include: asking a colleague for instructions on how to complete a task, creating a video to demonstrate how to use tool or gauge; or creating a quick reference guide (e.g., a list of the steps for calculating wet film thickness).  What is new is how we can transfer knowledge using methods that are quick, inexpensive, easily understood, and easily accessible.

By using microlearning within your training arsenal, you are not only saving money by using quick, inexpensive tools to transfer important knowledge, but you are providing opportunities for employees to learn new skills when it’s convenient.