As technology rapidly develops, the industries and disciplines that make use of it — including medical education — evolve as well. Microlearning techniques are an exciting opportunity to combine grounded learning principles with new educational technologies. The term “microlearning” is actually a reference to its main strategy, which is dividing study materials into bite-size chunks and focusing on one at a time.

How Does Microlearning Work?

Microlearning works by chunking up complex learning into a series of short, 10-to-20-minute lessons. Whereas traditional methods of teaching measure time spent in hours, microlearning offers learning in chunks of seconds or minutes. Where macrolearning is formal, hierarchical, and sequential, microlearning is informal, dynamic, and flexible. Information retrieval in traditional learning occurs via courses, while in microlearning platforms, learning occurs in small, self-contained learning units.

Though many of the documented benefits of microlearning are anecdotal rather than scientifically proven, researchers are beginning to conduct studies to quantify the effects of microlearning on students. Dr. Roy Phitayakorn of Harvard Medical School states that “the individual components of microlearning are all grounded in the overall neuroscience of learning.” In 2015, researchers at the Dresden University of Technology found that a group of online learners studying through a microlearning platform answered assessment questions 20% more accurately than a group who learned through the traditional method of studying a substantial amount of material, then completing one assessment. The microlearning group also took 28% less time to answer questions, demonstrating the strength of microlearning in both accuracy and efficiency. When engaged in a long study session with a broad range of topics, it is easy for material to blur together in one’s mind, decreasing the learner’s confidence and retention rate.

Microlearning: Why Does It Fit in the Medical Field?

While microlearning is growing in popularity for all age ranges in the educational world, its skill-based format is especially applicable to adult learners attempting to achieve specific objectives. Medical board exams require a tremendous amount of recall and proficiency. And after the exam, medical practice requires just as much, if not more. Because of this, it is especially important for residents and physicians to optimize their study time — not necessarily to study more, but to study smarter. Educational tools like NEJM Knowledge+ allow users to narrow in on exactly what they need to work on, using adaptive technology to filter out what you already know. In microlearning, the learner concentrates on solving individual problems rather than trying to memorize extensive abstract concepts. NEJM Knowledge+ challenges its learners further by providing fill-in-the-blank questions that stimulate active recall.

Because of the wide variance in topics and data a medical trainee must learn, breaking content down into small parts makes the material more manageable.

Microlearning: It’s Up to You

Microlearning techniques may not be the best for all types of learners — but it is ideal for those who are self-motivated. Microlearning rewards proactivity, emphasizing interactive elements between the learner and the content. These techniques also allow learners to see where new knowledge can be divided into bite-size exercises, which can also emphasize the connections between similar content. These connections can then be illustrated visually using videos or concept maps.

Also, microlearning’s chunked-up tasks often feel more achievable than trying to master an entire textbook or review course, for example, and it always feels great to get a task done. Microlearning gives you that sense of accomplishment more often, allowing you to set realistic goals and reach them without overwhelming yourself. However, the point is flexibility — if you do happen to have that large block of time, you can complete as many consecutive lessons as you want. Either way, these strategies enable users to integrate learning into their lives in a more constant, fluid approach.

How Can You Get Started?

Continuing medical education and board review products like NEJM Knowledge+ are increasingly attuned to the microlearning trend. Have you had experience and success with microlearning? We’d love to hear about your experience.