Feb 10, 2021
Learning in small chunks can also satisfy the hunger for knowledge

By Brienne Musselman

Education: The Joy of Micro-bitesRemember when you were a kid and you ventured out trick-or-treating and there was always a house or two that gave out full-size candy bars? It was a discussion among siblings or friends, everyone knew those houses, a coveted delight you’d go out of your way for. Never mind that three small size candy bars—readily available at other houses—are essentially the same thing. There was something about chomping into something that felt like a victory.

I used to think about learning this way. Stay with me.

We, myself included, are accustomed to a CEU-sized learning experience. I want my hour, or two. Passing by other bite-sized learning opportunities to get to what I really want: an hour immersed in someone else’s expertise, and a CEU to prove I did it. I was there, I ate the whole thing. It’s not unlike college, where learning is described by contact hour—and so is your bill.

I recently read The Death of Expertise: The Campaign Against Established Knowledge and Why it Matters by Tom Nichols. With everyone seemingly an “instant expert” via Google, I was motivated to learn what specifically sets good information apart to the untrained eye. If you’ve Googled UV lighting lately, you know what I mean. The online abyss does promote a sense of all information being equal. I click on one article with a sophisticated white background and a serif font, and it feels quite official. So does the next one, and the next. It’s an easy trap to fall into. I recommend the book, if you’re interested in how and why we develop expertise, and the importance of giving deserving individuals more of our time.

I thought about how we share expertise with one another in the context of a CEU-sized chunk, and how that relates to how we actually learn. Consider the learning objectives. Yes, you know the slide with four bullet points that speakers pass by when they’re presenting with a casual “I have to put this slide up here”…

WHEN WE LEARN SOMETHING NEW, we start simply by recognizing or recalling information, and we move into more complex processes like analysis, comparison and evaluation. Learning objectives in a CEU-worthy course generally fit in this latter part of learning. Those key words that most well-written learning objectives begin with: identify, demonstrate, compare, evaluate— you probably have your own go-to phrases—all relate back to Bloom’s Taxonomy, a classification of learning objectives and outcomes. In the 1950s, Benjamin Bloom published a sequence of cognitive skills, in order of complexity: Knowledge, Comprehension, Application, Analysis, Synthesis and Evaluation. An update in 2001, by Lorin Anderson and David Krathwohl, removed Synthesis and added “Creation” as the highest level of cognitive skill. Developing observable knowledge, behaviors and abilities within these categories indicates that learning (cognitive activity) has occurred. Objectives help to avoid ambiguity that contributes to a lack of structure in educational content.

In formal learning opportunities, establishing objectives within these specific steps helps to set the pace of the course and measure the outcomes. So if that’s the “full-size” aspect of learning, but doing a quick Google glance for an “answer” is far from satiating our need to really learn something…how do we effectively access or provide something in the middle? Can a true learning opportunity be, well…short?

As we expand the eLearning portal, this topic has been on my mind. Is there a way to provide general consumers bite-sized education that fulfills a need, has lasting value and doesn’t require the time commitment of expertise? For example, how to buy a light bulb at your favorite big-box store.

I sought out another book, Microlearning: Short and Sweet by Karl M. Kapp and Robyn A. Defelice. Microlearning can generally be defined as a piece of learning content, or instructional unit, requiring less than five minutes of active engagement designed to elicit a specific response. Participation in microlearning is key for information retention; it is not functional as a passive effort on the part of the learner. Microlearning—which refers to the piece of content (video, podcast, infographic)—would accomplish objectives within Knowledge or Comprehension, to go back to Bloom’s Taxonomy. Expecting more out of a participant (Analysis, Synthesis) isn’t realistic for the time spent on an idea.

There are six use-cases for microlearning according to Kapp and Defelice: pensive, performance- based, persuasive, post-instruction, practice-based and preparatory. The sidebar (below) shows what this might look like for a sales team learning about a new light fixture.

MICROLEARNING ISN’T A SUBSTITUTE for classroom instruction, elearning, or spending an hour learning from your favorite presenters at an IES Conference. It isn’t meant to make you an expert either—or cram expertise into small bites. It is an underutilized opportunity to be intentional about learning in smaller doses and requires engagement and participation to be effective. I am relieved to find supportive information between a passive information search online, and a one-or-several hour(s) commitment to a particular subject.

We learn all the time. By being intentional about the objectives we set for the people we teach, for ourselves as we learn, and the time we have to accomplish either, I believe we can learn better. Don’t skip past the slide with all the learning objectives on them. It can be tempting to assume expertise gives you a pass, but give them the time they deserve for the sake of learning science. Take the time to explain them—and get to know the verbs that illustrate that learning has taken place because they should represent a measurable outcome. If you’re developing microlearning, keep in mind a specific measurable outcome too (noticing a theme?), and keep it simple. Oh, and by the way, if I could go back to myself as a trick-or-treater, I’d say: both of the candy bars have value: one is quicker to eat, the other you could share with a friend.

How a Luminaire Sales Team Can Microlearn
  • Pensive microlearning is typically a short, targeted question that helps a learner formulate their own conclusion about something. How is my competitor’s light fixture not as effective as ours?
  • Performance-based microlearning is typically a just-in-time prompt without requiring additional learning intervention or support mechanism (like a call to customer support). A prompt on a light fixture specification form reminding someone to select a trim finish and how to get more information if they need it.
  • Persuasive microlearning is generally used to modify a behavior and is goal oriented. A quiz prompted after a sales meeting to identify common mistakes of describing a light fixture’s key features to reinforce the importance of getting it right.
  • Post-instruction microlearning augments a larger learning initiative. After a day-long product launch meeting, one-minute videos (highlighting just one important take-away each) are sent for the next week and require a one-question quiz afterward.
  • Practice-based microlearning breaks a skill or behavior down into small steps. A companywide app that sends a notification for a game that requires quick identification of a light fixture’s physical characteristics, so the sales team can practice identifying them (and compete with each other in the process).
  • Preparatory microlearning can bring a number of individuals up to speed on a specific subject, in advance of a larger learning event like a conference or training. In preparation for LightFair, the team that occupies the booth are sent commonly asked product questions, perhaps with supplemental infographics, in advance at specific intervals before they arrive.

Brienne Musselman


Brienne Musselman

Brienne Musselman

Brienne Musselman joined the IES staff in 2019, and is now the IES Director of Education and Standards. With the help of important advisors in the IES membership and a dedicated staff, she leads the strategy for content development in technical standards and in education. Her... More info »