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How Learning Bursts Support Attention and Memory

Decades of research into cognitive and educational psychology have taught us quite a bit about the mechanisms driving employee training and development. It gives learning and development teams valuable insights into the types of microlearning activities that drive employee performance. Research shows that in the past two decades, the average human attention span has decreased by over four seconds. Our limited attention span leads to distraction and forgetfulness. Moreover, the amount of information the brain can encode or store from a single sitting is also reduced. Besides the convenience of condensed training content and shortened course time, this fact has certainly contributed to the increase in the use of learning bursts. Still, you have to use microlearning activities strategically to reap the benefits of this training modality to improve attention and memory.

Microlearning In Modern Media

Research shows that in the past two decades, the average human attention span has decreased by over four seconds.

Though far from a corporate training company, the TED organization (host of TED Talks) offers educational materials in a virtual instructor-led training modality. Their content library features presentations from professionals that span nearly every topic, but each presentation is strictly limited to 18-minutes. But, why 18 minutes? Curator Chris Anderson says this amount of time is “short enough to hold people’s attention…and precise enough to be taken seriously. But it’s also long enough to say something that matters.” This should sound quite familiar to the content development strategies behind creating different types of microlearning activities. With too much information delivered in a single training, the risk of the learner encoding peripheral or irrelevant information increases.

What are Learning Bursts?

To combat the limitations of attention and memory, learning bursts are an invaluable training method. By focusing on delivering training content in a short amount of time, learning bursts meet the training content consumption needs of the average learner. But what is a learning burst exactly?

Generally, any training content tailored to meet a learning objective in a short amount of time can be considered a learning burst. However, best practices in microlearning avoid merely chopping lengthy content, but rather emphasizes creating concise learning activities that focus in critical knowledge and behaviors. The final product should be a collection of intuitive and interactive bite-sized learning activities. Condensing training content to its most vital components enables employees to learn more quickly and apply that information immediately.

Determining how much training content is “too much” can be a challenge, but insights from educational psychology offer a few hints. For instance, the mechanism in our brains that allows us to manipulate information in the moment, working memory, has some general limits. Only three to four pieces of information can be processed at one time, and it’s extremely susceptible to overload. That’s part of why learning bursts manage to have such an impact on learning outcomes. They reduce the cognitive overload by limiting the amount of novel information given to the learner at one time – focusing on primary learning objectives.

Microlearning Strategies

Learning bursts can be very diverse in their delivery. Microlearning strategies typical utilize several training modalities. For example, gamification, video training, and motion graphics are all effective training modalities for delivering bite-sized learning. Whatever type of microlearning activity you’re designing, there are a few best practices to keep in mind.

Microlearning activities should prompt the learning to actively participate.


Learning bursts can be delivered in a variety of mediums and should not be limited to just short videos. Different modalities can be used to convey different learning objectives, so learning bursts should be tailored to the objective and the learner. Infographics, reading summaries, short podcasts, games, and interactive quizzes are all great ways to help the learner work towards gaining new knowledge.


Having more condensed content can certainly help with engagement, but that will still depend heavily on the training activity design. Rather than passively receiving information, microlearning activities should prompt the learning to actively participate in the learning experience. Short interactive videos are a common low-tech training solution that many employee development teams are already implementing.


Especially when custom microlearning activities are integrated into the flow of work, learning bursts enable more flexibility for the learner. The condensed format means employees take less time away from day-to-day business operations. Moreover, if you make your training content available as mobile learning or offline, then that gives employees the ability to access the material more easily and more often.