If you are from the training or education world, “micro-learning” is likely not a new term for you. A Micro-learning Solution, which is a short 3-5 minute learning segment focused on a specific outcome, can serve multiple purposes. Micro-learning Exercises can provide opportunity to practice a specific task (not unlike a part-task trainer). They can also help fill “downtime” while learners/students are otherwise waiting to perform that task for an instructor (or teacher). This in turn allows learners to hone in on one specific challenge they seem to have (e.g. based on an assessment score), or providing training at the point of need (not unlike a ‘”how to” YouTube® video).
These purposes are all selling points for micro-learning, yet what if we were to think of micro-learning as a way to motivate complacent learners or students? If micro-learning exercises were designed as mini-assessments with performance feedback, including how the learner’s performance compares to his or her peers, these exercises would have the power to motivate.
The Impact of Cognitive Dissonance
There are times when a learner performs a task and then discovers how their performance compares to the ideal of other peers. This can create what we call cognitive dissonance. One of the most important theories of social psychology professes that individuals tend to strive for consistency. Inconsistencies lead to psychological discomfort. Therefore, cognitive dissonance motivates individuals to change behavior when their actions are inconsistent with how others think they should act. In other words, the psychological discomfort caused by the dissonance motivates the individual to change their behavior (Festinger 1957).
Regarding a micro-learning exercise, the individual sees how he or she is “actually performing”. This perception is in relation to how he or she “should be performing” with respect to a task that he or she should already be able to perform well or claims to already know how to perform well. This awareness would create cognitive dissonance and likely motivate this individual to seek out ways to improve performance in this task.
An Example Scenario for a Micro-learning Solution
Let us take a very simple example of a driver’s exam. Depending on the state, a student driver will read a manual and have to pass a learner’s permit exam. Students must pass this simple, computer-based permit exam before the state issues a permit to them. After the permit is issued, the student learns to drive the vehicle either with a professional driving instructor or with a parent or guardian (or any adult willing to take that chance). The student driver is generally required to have a specified amount of road driving practice in various conditions and on back roads and highways and (in most cases) has learned to successfully parallel park the vehicle (as well as forward park).
Student drivers are often nervous at Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) testing centers when taking a road test. This is partially because a DMV can immediately issue student drivers a license upon passing a road test. Furthermore, if you visit any DMV testing center after-hours you can find student drivers regularly practicing parallel parking. Specifically, student drivers try again and again to perfect the parking move. Usually this is done with parents opening the passenger door, peeking out and shaking their head “no”, followed by their teenager flopping his or her head on the steering wheel in despair.
The first item on the driver assessment is usually not parallel parking or any driving for that matter. In fact, the DMV requires student drivers to perform very simple tasks within the vehicle while it is in park. These tasks can include turning on the left and right blinkers, applying the emergency brake, turning on the “hazard” lights, turning on and off the lights (and high beams), and turning on and off the windshield wipers. If student drivers are unable to perform any of these tasks, testers may fail them and stop the road test.
How to Motivate Learners through Micro-learning Exercises
The simple tasks in the example scenario are ones that student drivers might think they already know how to do. Additionally, they may only be able to do them in context of driving. Subsequently, they place no focus on these tasks because they are simple in comparison to driving the vehicle. A complacent learner may exhibit one or all of these trains of thought.
So what if that student driver could quickly assess those skills on a mobile device? Furthermore, what if they could do that on a mobile device at the breakfast table the morning of the test?(See Figure 1).
Figure 1. Sample Simulation
In this example, the student driver can quickly identify and manipulate the various components of the vehicle. Furthermore, student drivers can experience how it will feel when they must perform those tasks while the vehicle is parked. The student driver will then receive the results. In fact, they may even “feel” the results (feel the discomfort) of the tester stating they failed and why. The student driver might also be able to see the results of peers also accessing the exercise. These comparisons could build confidence and reduce anxiety. They may also produce the discomfort that will motivate the student driver to review these tasks and practice again. Micro-learning exercises designed this way have the power to motivate learners and change behavior in any industry or educational setting.
Festinger, L. (1957). A Theory of cognitive dissonance. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.