7 design principles for microlearning programs

Here are 7 principles to keep in mind when designing a great microlearning program.

Education & Skills Training


List of 7 Microlearning design principles

Microlearning is an emerging approach in elearning which delivers short bursts of learning content — generally able to be completed in 20 minutes or less.

Because lessons are bite size, learners benefit from increased flexibility and are able to complete lessons ‘anywhere and anytime’, especially when delivered via mobile devices such as smartphone or tablet.

This approach encourages young and adult learners to complete courses, and can be highly effective in time-poor contexts such as job-embedded professional development, locations with limited internet connection, and as a complement to face-to-face learning.

Here at Catalpa, we specialise in microlearning programs for development contexts across the Asia Pacific. We’ve even developed our own in-house microlearning platform designed specifically for these environments.

Here are 7 principles to keep in mind when designing a great microlearning program.

1. Put the learners at the centre

Online learning has notoriously poor completion rates. That’s why effective microlearning design must focus on relevance to, and engagement with, its specific audience.

Only by developing a deep understanding of your learners’ behaviours and context will you be able to build a course which meets their needs and that they are able to easily access.

Start by gathering data about learners, asking questions like:


How do your users access the internet? Do they have a mobile phone? How advanced is their digital literacy? What are their motivations for learning? Why do they need to take this course? What are they interested in learning? What do they need to learn from courses? How/where/when they will access the course materials?


This is all part of a human-centred approach to design, and will help you build a robust picture of users’ existing knowledge, learning conditions, country and cultural knowledge.


2. Pedagogy before technology

Effective microlearning courses will always put pedagogy — how you want the learners to learn — ahead of decisions about tech tools used to deliver lessons.

This is because the right pedagogical approach is critical to achieving the objectives of your program, and meeting the needs and motivations of your audience.

Common pedagogical approaches in education projects include constructivist, inquiry-based learning, and experiential learning — but there are many options depending on what is most relevant in each local context.

By contrast, technology is the vehicle to deliver your identified approach. It provides tools to guide learners along the educational journey, and enhance the learning experience.

3. Design for mobile-first

Microlearning’s strength lies in its ability to deliver short-but-focussed lessons with unprecedented flexibility — and it’s for this reason that content should be designed specifically for use via a mobile device.

Research suggests users spend shorter periods of time on mobile devices than other technologies, so simplicity and clarity are key to gaining ongoing engagement.

Learners must quickly feel like they understand the online learning process and presentation of content should be suited to small screens and simple interpretation.

Information should be designed for simple interpretation on a mobile device. Above we see a table of statistics (left) adapted to be more accessible to learners on ‘portrait’ aligned mobile phone screens (right).

4. Start at the finish

Also known as backward design, starting at the finish focuses on understanding the end goal before launching into course detail.

When designers pay close attention to what learners should be able to do at the end of the course, they are better able to stay on topic and ensure assessments are logical and useful measures of progress.

From the learners’ perspective, stating objectives at the outset of courses will help them to see the logical progression of their learning, increasing a sense of achievement and motivation to continue.

Learning outcomes can be expressed as simple sentences explaining what the learner will be better able to do by the end of the lesson/course.


By the end of this course you will be able to… Identify: …identify the four S’s of hospital emergency department care Describe: …describe the key features of an inclusive school lesson Explain: …explain the process of reporting a domestic violence incident Compare: …compare crop rotation techniques in Pacific Island nations


5. Mix the media

We’ve said it before and we’ll say it again… engagement is key to the success of any elearning experience.

Use of a range of different media types to suit content and enhance the learning experience. This could include text, images, audio, video, interactive content, animation, quizzes, VR, or any other compatible format.

It is always important to assess the cultural relevance of media and content, to ensure it is easy for the learner to relate to and understand.

6. Celebrate successes!

Learners are often most critical of their own progress, and regular positive reinforcement can help reduce dropout rates, encourage motivation, and provide an ongoing sense of achievement.

Including visible learning indicators such as measures of success, messages of encouragement, and opportunities to share achievements with their peers will reward persistence, and provide ongoing encouragement to continue learning.

This could be as simple as a congratulations message at the end of a lesson, displaying interactive progress graphics, or awarding micro-credentials on passing exams.

Including non-assessed quizzes can provide opportunities for learners to check their understanding and receive constructive feedback, without the risk of failing an assessment and becoming disheartened.


7. Practice learning in the real world

By its very definition, elearning takes place online. However, it’s important to remember that this learning is meant to be put into practice in the real world.

Encourage learners to take their new knowledge offline by including group participation in courses and activities that direct learners to discuss and build upon key ideas with peers and colleagues.

Encourage learners to learn more with others in collaborative, practical environments.

Finally, remember that course design should be an iterative process that includes regular review and evaluation phases.

By including inbuilt mechanisms to collect and use feedback, you’ll keep learners at the centre of the design process and be able to continually improve the learning experience over the long term.

To learn more about Catalpa, head on over to our website or follow us on Facebook, LinkedIn or Twitter.

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