Microlearning, an approach to training that focuses on conveying information about a single idea, is growing in the learning and development sector. One might watch a brief video focused on the qualities of an inclusive leader or ways to identify the symptoms of hostility in the workplace, for example. The information is often presented in an engaging format that stimulates knowledge acquisition in the learner.
The microlearning training goal is clear: Train one idea succinctly with engaging content and with as few “extras” as possible. But while microlearning is effective at certain types of training, the human brain doesn’t like microlearning for everything.
Good For Hard Skills Training
Learning science — the marriage of psychology and brain science — suggests that microlearning is advantageous for two reasons. First, the emphasis on training a single idea as succinctly as possible increases the likelihood that the learner will remain engaged and attentive during the whole microlearning session. Second, the aim of microlearning to eliminate any ancillary information that is not directly relevant to the target idea means that the working memory and executive attention allocated to process the information can focus on the idea to be learned with no need to filter irrelevant information.
Because microlearning techniques are targeted at working memory, executive attention and attention span in general, microlearning strongly affects processing in the cognitive skills learning system. That system recruits the prefrontal cortex, a region of the cortex directly behind the forehead that mediates the learning of hard skills.
These hard skills include learning rules and regulations, new software and skills such as math and coding. Hard skill learning requires focused attention and the ability to process and rehearse the information. One learns by reading, watching and listening. Microlearning is optimal for hard skills training, as information is ultimately retained through mental repetitions.
Bad For Soft Skills Training
Most e-learning approaches to corporate training use the same one-size-fits-all delivery platform and procedures when training hard skills and people (aka soft) skills. Although generally effective for hard-skills training, especially when tools like microlearning are incorporated, this one-size-fits-all approach is only marginally effective at training people skills because people skills are ultimately behavioral skills.
People skills are about what we do, how we do it and our intent. These are the skills that one needs for effective interpersonal communication and interaction, for showing genuine empathy, embracing diversity and avoiding situations in which unconscious biases drive behavior.
Behavioral skill 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. When the learner generates a behavior that is followed in real-time, within hundredths of a millisecond, by feedback that rewards the behavior, dopamine is released, and that behavior will be incrementally more likely to occur 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 next time the learner is in the same context.
People skills are learned by doing and involve physical repetitions. Behavior skills training is optimized when you train the learner on multiple behaviors, across multiple settings. Ideally, the learner has no idea what is coming next. To train for multiple leadership situations, such as leading an effective meeting, giving an effective performance review or evidencing active listening skills, generalization, transfer and long-run behavior change is most effective. This teaches the leader to think on their feet and be confident they can handle any situation at any time.
Don’t focus on one situation and just train it, then switch to another and just train it. Although the context is not central to the skill to be trained, including a broad range of contexts leads to more robust behavior change. For example, during leadership training for effective performance reviews, it’s 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.
In short, the broader-based the training, the better.
Todd Maddox is the founder and CEO at Cognitive Design and Statistical Consulting and a Learning Scientist/Research Fellow at Amalgam Insights, Inc. Comment below or email editor@CLOmedia.com.