How long is microlearning?

7 minutes or less (at least that’s what I heard at a conference).

Or it could be under 10 minutes (because that’s what an industry report said).

Or maybe it’s 4 minutes and 20 seconds (because that’s the average duration of a YouTube video nowadays).

“How long should it be?” is the most popular question in the microlearning conversation, by far. People struggle with the term “micro” and want to specify a time requirement. With so many different microlearning explanations flying around, people are grasping to find some consistency in the concept. Since duration is a clear differentiator between microlearning and traditional tactics, that’s where the attention goes. But it’s not about making things shorter—at least not exactly.

Woman's hand holding a stopwatch

To answer the question of how long a burst of microlearning should be, let’s start with our definition:

Microlearning is an approach to training that delivers content in short, focused bites. To be effective, microlearning must fit naturally into the daily workflow, engage employees in voluntary participation, be based in brain science (i.e. how people actually learn), adapt continually to ingrain the knowledge employees need to be successful, and ultimately drive behaviors that impact specific business results.

You’ll notice that we didn’t include a duration requirement. That’s because there isn’t one. However, we did say that microlearning should be “short” and “focused.” Let’s unpack what those terms mean and how they answer the most popular question in microlearning.

Short learning fits their workflow

Microlearning is already shorter than traditional training methods due to the focus on a single objective. But there’s another factor to consider when it comes to duration: the audience’s time. Employees are often overburdened in the workplace, and they don’t have much extra time for training. This is especially challenging for operations employees who typically don’t control their own schedules and cannot participate in training away from work. Therefore, microlearning must also fit into the time they have available on the job. This could be 5 minutes just after clocking in for their shift or 3 minutes between incoming phone calls. This may not sound like much time, but just a few minutes can go a long way towards helping people solve meaningful problems.

Focused learning is more meaningful

Microlearning is focused on solving a specific, measurable business problem. This is the most important principle. Rather than try to teach an employe everything they may possibly ever need to know about a large subject, you focus on a single, meaningful objective. For example, rather than create a generic course called “Safety in the Workplace,” you could provide a brief video, job aid and reinforcement questions focused on an immediate safety concern, such as how to lift heavy objects without getting hurt. This focus is what enables microlearning to be both shorter and more easily digested than traditional training content. It’s not about the duration: it’s about the focus.

So, how long should a burst of microlearning be? While there is no one-size-fits-all response to this ever-prevalent question, there is a clear answer. It should be as short as possible to address a specific, measurable objective and fit within the audience’s available time.

JD is one of the most prolific authors and speakers in workplace learning today. His practical approach integrates science, technology, storytelling and pure common sense to enable employees, improve performance and drive business results. For 20 years, JD has executed strategies for global organizations, including The Walt Disney Company.

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