Instructional Design for Microlearning

By January 31, 2020July 17th, 2023LTEN Focus On Training


Feature Story – By Steven Just, Ed.D.

What if the microlearning is the learning?

Today, no training strategy is complete without a microlearning strategy. But where do you begin? And once you begin, where do you go from there?

Classic eLearning courses tend to be well structured and usually look something like Figure 1.

Figure 1

But microlearning is more agile. Activities and microlessons can be combined in a virtually infinite number of ways and are usually spaced over time, resulting in both an instructional design challenge and an opportunity.

Let’s review some of the more common use cases for microlearning:

  • As a supplement to a classical (instructor-led, eLearning, blended, workshopbased) learning event.
  • As reinforcement learning after a learning event.
  • To ensure long-term mastery.
  • For just-in-time, point-of-need performance support.
  • As targeted remediation to address learning gaps.
  • As preparation for a future learning event.
  • As auxiliary learning during a learning event.

Space doesn’t permit a full treatment of all these use cases, so in this article we will focus on three:

  • Learn: When microlearning is the learning. There is no prior learning event.
  • Sustain: Using microlearning to sustain long-term learning after a learning event.
  • Master: Using microlearning to ensure long-term learning mastery after a learning event.

Figure 2


By now we are all familiar with the traditional learning/forgetting curve, as depicted in Figure 2.

In the traditional model a learning event (eLearning, ILT, blended) is followed by a
mastery certification exam (the vertical grey bar). Decades of research have shown that, absent a continuous learning strategy, there will be a rapid drop-off in knowledge after the learning event. Consequently, most microlearning strategies focus on post-event learning sustainment.

But what if the microlearning is the learning? This can happen under any number of circumstances for which a large learning event is not warranted. For example, a:

  • Minor update to a product
  • New marketing initiative
  • New competitor
  • Updated compliance policy

While it might be possible to create a one-off video or microlesson to cover the topic, this is not the best strategy. Why? Because the forgetting curve is just as relevant to a short microlesson or video as it is to a larger learning event. There is nothing inherent in a short lesson that makes it immune to forgetting. So, a successful microlearning strategy needs to deploy two evidence-based learning principles:

  • Successive relearning spaced over time
  • Retrieval practice

The microlearning must be spaced over time and there must be opportunity to practice what has been learned to drive knowledge retention. This strategy is shown in Figure 3.

Figure 3

A subscription is a magazine-like series of microlessons spaced over time (the timing can be daily, weekly or any other interval, as dictated by the learning requirements). Each subscription is targeted around a learning objective and the number of subscriptions is also dictated by the learning requirements. Crucially, each subscription is followed by a retrieval practice exercise (RP in the diagram) in which the learner must answer and “retire” questions by answering them correctly multiple times in a row.

Through this combination of learning subscriptions and retrieval practice, the content is learned and retained.

Sustaining Learning

Next, we will consider how to use microlearning in the common case where there is a learning event and the goal is to sustain learning over time. Like the learn strategy, it must deploy the same two evidence-based strategies, as shown in Figure 4.

Figure 4

This strategy borrows elements from the learn strategy. It is a series of learning subscriptions followed by retrieval practice. But there is one important difference: Unlike the learn strategy, we are assuming there has been a prior learning event, so we just need to sustain what has previously been learned, not teach it from scratch.

But this presents a problem: What learning gets sustained? We don’t want to repeat the entire course in microlessons. This becomes a judgment call on the instructional designer’s part. What parts of the learning content are most important to sustain? Where might our learners be having difficulty? (Using a knowledge check at the completion of, or soon after, the learning event will give you a good idea what this content is.)

Once you have decided which content needs to be reinforced you can then create learning subscriptions by repurposing the important content from the learning event into microlessons. Repurposing the course content into microlessons will save lots of time and money. These microlessons can be videos, podcasts, job aids, infographics, animations or short eLearning segments.

Be sure to follow up these subscriptions with retrieval practice. Then at the end of the sustainment period, you can deliver another knowledge check to be sure the learning has stuck.

Figure 5

Using Microlearning for Mastery

Looking again at the classic learning/forgetting curve we can immediately see the problem with traditional mastery learning strategies. The mastery exam (the vertical grey bar) is traditionally given immediately following the learning event. But what’s really important is not immediate mastery, but sustained mastery – a week, a month, three months after the completion of the learning event.

We know that without learning sustainment, long-term mastery is unlikely. A post-learning knowledge check would likely reveal a rapid drop-off in learning retention (see Figure 5).

The optimal strategy is deployment of spaced microlessons after the knowledge check demonstrates the learning drop-off. But any learning event is likely to cover many learning objectives. It wouldn’t be practical to present the entire course again. We want to target remediation just at those learning objectives where our knowledge check demonstrates need. How do we do this?

Figure 6

If your microlearning platform has a personalized remediation feature, you are in luck. The platform is capable of diagnosing areas of learning need and assigning targeted microlessons on a learner-by-learner basis.

So, a post-event mastery strategy looks like Figure 6.

Of course, it is possible that the delayed mastery exam will again show areas requiring remediation so the cycle can repeat itself.

These microlearning strategies are by no means exhaustive. Because microlearning is so flexible and agile, there are many more combinations of activities and microlessons that can be deployed, guaranteeing that as instructional designers we will never run out of creative ideas.

Dr. Steven Just is chief learning officer for Intela Learning and facilitates the LTEN “Science and Practice of Modern Learning & Assessment” workshops. Email Steven at


About LTEN

The Life Sciences Trainers & Educators Network ( is the only global 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization specializing in meeting the needs of life sciences learning professionals. LTEN shares the knowledge of industry leaders, provides insight into new technologies, offers innovative solutions and communities of practice that grow careers and organizational capabilities. Founded in 1971, LTEN has grown to more than 3,200 individual members who work in pharmaceutical, biotech, medical device and diagnostic companies, and industry partners who support the life sciences training departments.

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