Micro vs. Macrolearning – What to Use and When?

Microlearning has been all the rage in recent years. While we shouldn’t undermine its effectiveness when designed and used properly, it isn’t a solution to all learning problems. Concise and contextual bursts of learning are good for certain uses, but not all. Sometimes, we still need more long-form education, macrolearning.

While the traditional training approaches of organisations perhaps rely more on macrolearning than they should, we do need to make sense of when to go micro and when, on the other hand, we are better off with macro. So, let’s explore what to use, when and how.

We need macrolearning to build new skills…

Generally, we can distinguish between the need of macro vs micro by analysing the existing skill level of the learner. If the topic is entirely new, or the learner has had very limited exposure, macrolearning is the more suitable approach. Novices tend to benefit from structured and guided instruction, as well as learning about the topic with a wide perspective. This helps to develop an understanding of the topic to the level that the learner can start self regulating his/her own learning.

Conversely, attempting to use microlearning on such new topics wouldn’t work very well. As the learners are not familiar with the topic beforehand, they are less likely to be able to form the links between concepts (i.e. relate the microlearning activities to the bigger picture).

Hence, if we consider some practical use cases, macrolearning is likely to be at its best in:

  • Transformational programs. E.g. training people on contemporary topics such as principles of data science, design thinking, machine learning etc. In many organisations, these are skills not readily available in the skill pool.
  • Learning to use the organisation’s tools. E.g. training on how to use various software and information systems of the organisation.

… But microlearning enables us to build on existing skills

Whereas macrolearning focuses on complete skill areas and “the bigger picture”, microlearning is better suited for more specific needs. Pedagogically, we should use microlearning to build on existing knowledge. Once the learners already have a baseline of knowledge to work with, they can contextually apply and relate the newly learnt things to the existing. For instance, once you know enough of a language, learning new words brings immediate benefits. But learning vocabulary without knowing the grammar or how to use the language won’t give you good results.

Additionally, microlearning has the characteristics of being able to help people to learn something small in a convenient, rapid manner. Convenience and speed are key factors when considering learning in the flow of work. Smaller “chunks” are simply more convenient to offer and use than large “chunks”.

So, taking this into account, we could establish that microlearning is potentially better suited for uses such as:

  • Updating” knowledge and skills. E.g. new SOPs, new workplace practices, product updates and best practices. All of these are topics that employees would already have experience on. Hence, micro rather than long-form learning should be better off.
  • Performance support. Practical knowledge and information on how to perform specific tasks, delivered just-in-time.
  • Increasing retention. Refreshers, knowledge checks and other spaced learning elements help to increase retention, even within a wider “macrolearning” activity.

Final thoughts

We should never assume that there are any one-size-fits-all approaches to learning. Ultimately, executing an effective workplace learning strategy is about combining different methods, formats and approaches in a way that makes sense – for both the organisation and the employees. Perhaps a key thing to remember for the future is that neither micro- or macrolearning has to be just “formal” learning activities. Furthermore, we shouldn’t forget the clear link between the two. Micro will always be a part of the macro, and macro will always include the micro.

Hence, you should take the time to analyse your own organisational needs, and see what where you might best utilise either of the approaches, and even better, how to play them together. And if you think you might need help in developing this kind of a learning strategy, we can probably help. Just shoot us a message here and we’ll get back to you.

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