With research highlighting the pitfalls of traditional training methods, a growing number of businesses have gained an appetite for bite-sized learning and its power to improve knowledge retention
When Panasonic noticed that its call-centre staff were finding it hard to recall all the technical details it expected them to learn about its huge range of products, the electronics giant realised it had a problem that has long been discussed in training circles.
This is the awkward fact that, when humans supposedly learn something, it’s a temporary affair at best. Several studies have shown that half of any new information imparted is forgotten within a day and up to three-quarters can be lost in a week. After a month, very little is retained at all. That’s a whole lot of training budget vanishing into thin air.
“Typically, we’d put new recruits through three weeks of classroom-based product training,” says Panasonic’s general manager of customer care in Europe, Bruce Swan. “But we realised that, if they didn’t receive enquiries about a particular product straight away, their retention of that learning would soon peter out.”
The company’s solution was to develop and, in partnership with cloud-based knowledge and learning platform Fuse, deliver what is now approaching 2,000 bite-sized units of on-demand learning. Each one lasts only three to five minutes, enabling learners to ‘snack’ and then move on to the next one.
Bite-sized learning has its critics, who deride it for pandering to the short attention spans of the social media generation and argue that it does little to develop a deep understanding among users. But Swan and others are proving that this format is more effective than the conventional approach.
“Stripping the learning right back forced us to define the specific knowledge we wanted people to retain,” he says. “We found that course pass rates increased by 17% and the retention of information by our agents improved by 10% overall.”
The key to the success of bite-sized learning centres on what neuroscientists call spacing theory – a refinement of the work of German psychologist Hermann Ebbinghaus in the 1880s. From his research, he concluded that learners’ retention of information will drop to 40% within days unless they review that material repeatedly.
“Biologically, bite-sized learning suits the brain’s first requirement to deal with small packets of information at a time,” says e-learning expert Leon Hady, a former headteacher who transformed the performance of an inner-city school.
Ryan Chynces, senior manager of online education at Hootsuite, agrees, adding: “Where bite-sized learning excels is that it recreates the ‘spacing’ that learners need, because it’s designed to be returned to again and again. It may sound perverse, but a small chunk of information actually becomes harder for the brain to remember over time. But the learner’s effort of going back and retrieving that material makes it easier for them to recall it later down the line.”
In essence, then, the key task of those designing bite-sized content is to make the material engaging enough to make learners want to return to it and deepen their knowledge in the process.
This is exactly what happens with the e-learning that Hady provides: learners return to his material three times on average. Meanwhile, 60% of Panasonic’s call-centre workers are going back to its bite-sized content in their own time and on their own devices, even though they aren’t obliged to.
A broader benefit of bite-sized learning is that it’s easier for busy people to fit around their other activities. This factor has proved useful to pub and hotel operator Marston’s.
“Getting our predominantly shift-based teams all together at once isn’t practical,” explains the group’s head of learning and development, Jane Murray. “What can do with our bite-sized approach is extend learning to 8,000 people almost simultaneously. We find that they simply start opening the content immediately, as if they were consuming material on social media.”
To prepare its furloughed employees for their return to work after the Covid closures, Marston’s sent out bite-sized learning modules, designed in collaboration with Norwegian startup Attensi, on topics such as how to discuss menus and handle customers’ queries. None of these modules was more than two minutes long. Their content mixed pure information with games and multiple-choice quizzes to test learners’ comprehension.
Users had to play the content an average of 2.3 times before they were certified as passing the course, but many played it four times or more because they enjoyed the activities, according to Murray.
“We know that our learners’ retention of this information has improved,” she says. “After their first play, their average score was 61%. By the time they achieved certification, the average was 93%.”
Such results represent a challenge to more traditional forms of training. As Paul Wakeling, executive director of curriculum and quality at The Skills Network, notes: “Bite-size learning is deceptively effective because people tend to want to binge on many modules in one sitting, just as they might with TikTok videos.”
Whether it will replace traditional longer-form e-learning or even face-to-face methods is a moot point.
“We’ve reduced our classroom training at Panasonic to three days now,” Swan reports. But, even though the firm’s customer-satisfaction ratings are significantly higher than they were before it introduced bite-sized learning, he and others do not foresee the end of traditional methods just yet.
“The function of coming together face to face will be different,” Swan predicts. “That format will be more about sharing knowledge and discussing things further.”
Murray believes that bite-sized learning will “become significant at Marston’s, but it won’t replace critical thinking and conversations”.
But, with both also reporting that employees are using bite-sized learning as a way to explore other career paths their companies can offer them, it’s clear that more really is being done with less. The smaller the snack, the more it seems to satisfy.