Using Micro-learning to Affect Behaviour Change

dreamstime_xs_51349296I’ve recently had a number of interesting conversations about whether micro-learning – one of this year’s big talking points – could really support behavioural change training.  Most people seemed comfortable that it would be good for pure knowledge transfer, but questioned whether it would support behavioural change, where typically we’ve invested in more complete and deeper programmes of learning, be that online or in the classroom.

I genuinely believe it has a valuable role to play in this area.

My own enthusiasm for micro-learning stems from a pragmatic view that learners are increasingly favouring this type of training, with the change in their learning habits.

I’ve seen first-hand how learners shy away from longer courses purely due to the need to juggle learning with their workload.  Seemingly even the good old guidance we used to give about dipping in and out of a longer course over time doesn’t work as well any more.  In part this is due to the fact that we still designed the course to be an extended piece of learning, so once the learner was inside it, they struggled to exit gracefully at any particular point.  So whilst breaking down an e-learning course into separate parts is a good start, micro-learning can be so much more powerful when the solution is extended or augmented by it.

I do appreciate the contribution that a strong instructional design approach brings to any learning project, but I also believe that we need to start meeting our learners half-way, balancing instructional design theory with a realistic delivery model, even if that might mean watering down the instructional design.

We also mustn’t assume that micro-learning has to be a mini-course.  In fact, over the last two years, many of the micro-learning courses I’ve deployed were certainly not course-like.  I’ve even struggled at times to find a term to describe them, finally settling on “learning widgets”.

Some were short explainer videos highlighting behavioural topics such as body language and motivation.  Others were standalone arcade-style games based around customer service skills, whilst some were more performance support like, but very interactive, covering topics such as maintaining energy levels.  There was also one mini scenario that covered questioning skills.

The variety of approaches certainly aided their impact and increased engagement, which is one of the key factors behind a training programme’s success.

So why do I think micro-learning can support behavioural change?  I’ve looked at this from two angles:  how it could support a typical behavioural change process; and how it could underpin the factors that we know result in a successful behavioural change training programme.

Using Micro-learning to Support the Behavioural Change Process

I have used the so-called transtheoretical model of behavioural change, which dates from 1977, one of the many behavioural change models that interestingly stem from work in the health sector, i.e. trying to get patients to lose their unhealthy habits.

This describes the following states that someone goes through when they are learning new behaviours:

  1. Pre-contemplation (not ready)
  2. Contemplation (getting ready)
  3. Preparation (ready)
  4. Action
  5. Maintenance

In the table below, I’ve considered each state and what forms of micro-learning could assist the transition.

Transtheoretical Model and Micro-learning
Using micro-learning to support the transtheoretical model of behaviour change
Using Micro-learning to Support a Successful Behavioural Change Training Programme

Here I’ve considered what makes for a successful piece of behavioural training and looked at how micro-learning could support that.  True, I’ve used the word “support”, as I do realise that there will be times when something more than “micro-learning” will have the most efficacy, but I want us to at least look more closely at how we can bring innovation back into our blended learning programmes.

Characteristics of a successful behavioural change training programme Support offered by micro-learning
The learners believe the behavioural change will be useful for them, address their pains and be easy to implement Micro-learning is a great way to address the “hearts and minds” piece of any behavioural change training.  Video interviews with internal champions who’ve successfully embraced the change are very valuable.  The more “ambassadors” you can include, the better, as each should address a different audience.  Short explainer videos that introduce the change with impact and some degree of emotion also provide a strong starting point and personal connection.
The learners can link the behavioural change to concrete business goals Micro-learning – as suggested above – can also address this important requirement. Given each user may play a different role in achieving these goals – and may therefore have their own more tangible contributory goals – you could provide a range of tailored micro-learning assets.
The learners are able to see what good looks like Micro-learning – particularly videos – is a great way to show what good looks like.  Modelling best practice is a core element of any behavioural change programme and using real internal experts is a great way to do this.
The learners can see others already doing it Following on from the above, using micro-learning to show that others are already successfully using the new skills and behaviours is a proven way to motivate people who might still be doubtful or resistant.  This also helps to give them confidence that they can change too.
The learners aren’t overloaded with all the content at once Behavioural scientists say that that complex behaviour is learned gradually through the modification of simpler behaviours.  I like to think of this as breaking down macro-skills into their respective micro-skills and micro-learning is a great way to support the learner in managing the content they need to master.
The learners are able to repeatedly practice the new behaviours to change their habits There are probably limits to how much practice can be included in a traditional e-learning course.  Breaking out the practice elements into micro-learning such as mini simulations or mini games, means the learner can also be selective as to the micro-skill areas where they need more practice support.
The learners receive frequent feedback and are rewarded at each step Some forms of micro-learning, such as an explainer video, might not lend themselves to offering learner feedback, so we need to ensure a balance of learning asset types.  Where we might consider “rewarding” learners is through the various aspects of gamification. Mini quizzes, games or simulations could earn points and learners could earn badges as they complete the different pieces of micro-learning that make up the whole programme.  With the support of others, observational assessment could also be wrapped around certain modules.
The learners have an emotional connection to the content Emotional connections are typically created by having the learner experience their own gaps, as well as striking an emotional chord.  Mini-games or simulations are a good way to expose people to what they don’t know, as well as video content that delivers messages that stand out in the mind of the viewer.
The learners need to follow-up the learning with reinforcement activities More so than most forms of training, behavioural change doesn’t happen due to one learning event.  Behavioural habits take time to embed.  So learners should receive a stream of micro-learning assets to support them through this critical time-frame, which some estimate as lasting at least six months.
The learners are supported by ongoing knowledge and skills development Following on from the above, behavioural change also needs to be supported by supplementary content that stretches the learner and meets any incidental needs that arise as they implement what they’ve just learned.  I once made over 60 short learning modules available to learners who had just completed a personal effectiveness course, for just this reason.
The learners need to interact with the content Of course, this goes without saying and means that we should ensure that any micro-learning content is as interactive as possible.  Given how synonymous micro-learning can be with mobile learning, interactivity is a also good way to reduce the risk from distractions.
The learners are likely to each need some degree of personalisation You could argue we’ve gone from sheep-dipping learners using the classroom to sheep-dipping them using traditional e-learning.  Micro-learning offers more scope to personalise similar content to suit different audiences, without creating an unwieldy course that tries to cater for a variety of audiences.
The learners are offered actionable solutions Learners need to see that the new ways are practical.  Micro-learning that guides people through the core steps in a process or behaviour will be useful and shows the linkage to performance support.
The learners are supported by their managers and peers This is another critical success factor.  Micro-learning can also be a great resource for line managers and coaches to include in their “toolkit” that they can share with learners.

Finally I want to challenge one viewpoint I’ve seen articulated a few times now, using the analogy of learning a musical instrument.

Some commentators have written that a musician couldn’t learn their skill through micro-learning, e.g. in lessons of less than 5 minutes.  As a classically trained pianist and double-bass player, I have to disagree.  One of the best lessons I learned from both my music teachers was not to repeatedly try to learn an entire piece.  That’s just an exhausting way to only achieve a “good standard”.  I was encouraged to just learn each section at a time and to get them perfect, before pulling the entire piece together.

You always have the full score or CD recording to act as a reference point for the entire piece, but your separate lessons isolate each separate part.  In terms of more general skills training, I liken this to breaking a larger “macro-skill” into a series of “micro-skills”.

Remember that behavioural change is a process, not an event and that complex behaviour change is best achieved through the modification of simpler behaviours.  Micro-learning is well-placed to support learners on their change journeys.


Using Micro-learning to Affect Behaviour Change

2 thoughts on “Using Micro-learning to Affect Behaviour Change

  1. I’d honestly like to think that micro-learning could support most behaviours. Maybe not on their own, but definitely as part of a blend. It’s very unlikely that some behaviours can be changed over night, so a drip-feed approach targeting the different elements that contribute to successful behavioural change is a good approach. More and more, designers are increasingly interested in learning more about how the brain works in situations like this and I believe that micro-learning is well placed to address each brain-friendly approach.


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