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How Effective Is Bite-Sized Learning On Retention And Outcomes

How Effective Is Bite-Sized Learning On Retention And Outcomes

Issues of maximizing student attention and increasing engagement have plagued teachers at all levels of schooling for decades -- well before technology became a major presence in the classroom. It is common knowledge that research on attention spans and retention shows that all humans, and particularly young adults, often struggle with being able to maintain focus during lengthy lectures or presentations -- the kind which are often still a hallmark of more traditional high school and college courses.

However, learning science continues to explore alternative styles and methods to solve some of these long-standing roadblocks to student achievement. Among the newer initiatives being explored is the idea of bite-sized learning. Also known as microlearning, bite-sized learning focuses on breaking down a major subject or course into tiny, micro “chunks” that are then dispersed to a student with breaks or intervals between them -- the idea being that instead of killing engagement and motivation with overly lengthy lectures, the micro chunks are more easily processed and student engagement remains higher throughout a course.

Like any new learning initiative, there are plenty of skeptics to whether this method actually delivers better results than more traditional instructional styles. How effective bite-sized learning really is on retention and outcomes continues to be a question being researched by learning scientists and educational professionals, but the method is already being put into practice by major eLearning companies and online schools teaching coding and other professions, and seems to be growing ever more popular. Let’s explore what bite-sized learning is, as well as some of the studies and research that have been done already about its effectiveness and potential.

How Does Bite-Sized Learning Work? 

As noted above, bite-sized learning or microlearning was initially designed to solve several essential problems:

  • How can essential content still be communicated to learners, but in a method that doesn’t involve overloading their attention spans?
  • What is the most efficient way to break down key concepts while still ensuring those concepts are taught as a whole, and remembered?
  • How can traditional course and teaching structures be reworked to be more accessible in remote or on-demand style learning environments?

Especially after the past two years of the COVID-19 pandemic, finding new ways to rethink student learning and engagement has only become more essential. And this is where the bite-sized learning approach comes in.

Think Of It As Snacking Instead Of Eating A Full Meal 

Obviously, we need to eat full meals to gain the nutrition our body needs -- but if you’ve ever overeaten during lunch or dinner, you know that you don’t feel great afterwards. This is an apt metaphor for bite-sized learning -- the idea is to break down a concept into “snack-sized” pieces, such as breaking a list of essential vocabulary in half, or separating the steps of a coding project into miniature chunks.

In practice, microlearning often takes the form of either short videos or small chunks of slides that can be “consumed” at a learner’s own preferred pace, or around a flexible schedule. Much like remote work has shifted to allow employees to work around their preferred times for being motivated, bite-sized learning allows students to engage with course concepts at times that are most effective for them to learn.

However, the question remains -- what benefits does this approach offer?

Is Bite-Sized Learning Really Effective? What Are Its Benefits? 

While the research is by no means conclusive or complete, there are a few specific benefits that seem to be emerging in studies of bite-sized learning:

Retention/Focus Is Improved 

It's impossible for learners to focus on a task for an extended period of time without pause,  because our energy ebbs and flows throughout a given day. For example, studies have shown that after an extended period of 60 to 90 minutes of focus, our alertness decreases. During this time, people often feel the need to stand up or move around -- we get restless because we are burning out our attention span.

Learners operate best with a consistent and recurrent pattern of activity and rest. This is where  bite-sized eLearning modules often achieve their best results. This content format speaks directly to learners’ apparently ever-shrinking attention span, especially in the world of more and more screens and social media. Learners can take advantage of high-energy periods, but can finish up their chunk of content before the energy fades and retention drops off significantly.

According to Abreena Tompkins, an instructional specialist: “Physiologically, your neurons are keen and alert for no more than 20 consecutive minutes. At the end of those 20 minutes, your neurons have gone from full-fledged alert to total collapse, and it takes two to three minutes for those neurons to be completely recovered and back to the total alert state. If you break for longer than three minutes, you’ve redirected your attention.”

Interest In Course Material Increases 

Some of the most promising research on microlearning and its effectiveness has focused on how students have reacted to and remembered course content when using this approach, as opposed to the more traditional alternatives. For example, a study by Giurgiu (2017) found that smaller chunks of content aided students in better retaining information and performing better on an end-of-course test. Another study by Liu, Wei, and Gao (2016) found that students’ interest in both learning and understanding the material significantly improved. 

These studies reflect a seemingly obvious reality about the relationship between course content and student engagement - if students experience less burnout, they will view courses and the content within them more favorably. If you think back to your favorite class, it was probably one that captivated your attention (either because of a creative instructor or because of interesting content delivery). Meanwhile, if you think back to your least favorite class, you probably don’t remember the content that well (or at all). Science has consistently shown that motivation and engagement are huge parts of successful learning, and both research and common sense backs that up.

More Research Behind Microlearning’s Effectiveness

  • According to RPS research, Microlearning improves focus and supports long-term retention by up to 80%. This also argues for microlearning being used as an addition to traditional course content, as well as a standalone strategy.
  • Per a survey on learning and development professionals, an impressive 94% said that they prefer microlearning to traditional time-consuming eLearning courses because their learners prefer it (Boyette, 2012). As any teacher knows, excited students make for an exciting learning environment, which is itself an intangible (or harder to measure) benefit of this approach.
  • Beyond the traditional grade-school or college environments, microlearning offers benefits for adult learners also. Thanks to research by Software Advice, The LMS Features that Drive Employee Engagement IndustryView, more than 50% of the 385 employees who responded indicated that they would use their company’s learning tools more if the courses were made micro-sized.