How microlearning is changing how we train


By the time you finish reading just this first sentence, your mind might have already started to wander.

I won’t take it personally because it’s not necessarily your fault for not focusing, and it’s not necessarily my fault for failing to engage you. According to a 2013 study by the National Center for Biotechnology Information, the average attention span for humans is only EIGHT seconds (compared to nine seconds for a goldfish!). And that’s down from 12 seconds just a decade earlier.

In eight seconds, you can do quick things like read a text or a tweet, answer a question, form a first impression or ride (and fall off of) a mechanical bull. What these things have in common is that they are quick bursts of information or activity that we can give our complete, undivided concentration to before we start to get distracted.


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So what are the implications of our shrinking attention spans on learning? It’s clear that decreased attention spans make traditional training ineffective. Research suggests that influences like smartphones and social media are actually changing the way our brains work. In a world where the average person switches between gadgets up to 21 times an hour and the average office worker checks his or her email 30 to 40 times an hour, our brains have literally been rewired by technology. In order to offset the losses of shrinking attention spans, we need new models of learning, such as microlearning. 

Microlearning is defined as short learning experiences that are composed of small, bite-sized learning units and activities, delivered in easily digestible chunks, and experienced “just in time” when and where they are needed. Microlearning often ignores traditional models of instructional design and focuses only on key facts, and it is accessible from anywhere—phones, tablets, computers, social media, etc. Microlearning can consist of activities like watching a short video clip; viewing a flashcard; reading a flyer, handout or blog post; or taking a short quiz. If you’ve ever watched a YouTube video to figure out how to repair a broken appliance, learn a new dance move or master a tricky hairstyle, then you’ve already experienced microlearning!


Microlearning offers some important learning benefits. Because the lessons are short and focused, learners are more engaged and are more likely to complete the training. This results in better retention and increased transfer of knowledge and skills to the job. And because they are short, microlearning modules are generally easy and fast to create, which can certainly be a positive for any learning and development budget.

There is some good news here as things aren’t really quite as dire as eight seconds sounds. People can continually renew their attention, so we don’t have to make our nuggets of learning quite that dramatically short. The general consensus among experts is that people are at their peak energy level in the first eight minutes of any activity, so chunks of information that are shorter than that are about right for capitalizing on learning.

While no training solution is one-size-fits-all or solves every learning need, there should be a place for microlearning in your training toolbox to engage learners and keep them coming back for more.

Monique Donahue is the director of e-learning for Hilton Grand Vacations in Orlando. She is on the board of directors of the Council of Hotel and Restaurant Trainers. She can be reached at [email protected].

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