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Microlearning for Soft Skills

Updated: Feb 22, 2021

Think I can guess which of the following you did right before reading this message?

A. Grab a snack

B. Check your phone

C. Call partner/friend

D. Meet with mentor

Did you check your phone? Maybe you’re even reading this on a phone. How did I know?

Research on the average workday suggests that we check our phones approximately 150 times a day. We grab a snack about 2 to 3 times, and maybe call a partner or friend a couple of times. We only meet with our mentors (if we have one) for about 30 minutes every other week.

Is it a surprise that mobile microlearning is on trend? It can reach your personnel just-in-time via a modality that they are already using. It’s “snack-sized” which means fast development and quicker dissemination. But we can't let these snacks be junk food. In other words, we want microlearning to nourish learners with the most essential skills.

The bulk of the microlearning research highlights improvement in procedural skills. These are "hard skills" that can be rehearsed in a fairly scripted fashion. But what about soft skills?

Much of what we know about microlearning's efficacy in the areas of soft skills, emotional intelligence, and interpersonal characteristics has been reported anecdotally or from the creators of the training itself...we'll withhold our judgment.

Yet, the science is there to support microlearning for soft skills if you consider specific methods.

Method 1: Narrative transport

Most of us in this industry are familiar with digital storytelling. What you may not realize is that there are neuro-psychological phenomena that occur when people are engaged with a narrative. You can leverage learner's natural cognitive skills by presenting soft skill learning via story.

In microlearning, you can even use serial stories, where one "push" or lesson advances the storyline. Not only is this memorable, but it keeps the learners invested. Many of the Choose Your Own Adventure styled stories do this and help learners experience choices from the first-person perspective.

Method 2: Collaborative teams

Create microlearning teams. Allow your learners to partner up and collaboratively work through learning tasks. When this is done digitally, you can track on the user interaction to reduce the common concern about someone not carrying their weight. Further, you can incentivize genuine collaboration, allowing for soft skills to be both content and the process by which the tasks are accomplished.

For example, if you are working on the soft skill of openness, the task design may push different pieces of information about openness to each partner. Ideally, one partner has an initial message that talks about the benefits and another one has some of the challenges. Then, the learners individually must communicate the core messages to their partners in conversation. Keep it brief, so that they can do this with a simple 2 minute check in verbally or in text. The structure of the collaborative learning team helps the students immediately practice the exact skills you're teaching.

Method 3: Design affectively

Affective design doesn't mean "touchy-feely". It means that you can objectively chart learner progress according to science-backed frameworks.

I'm going to post more on the affective domain in learning design in future posts, but you can refresh by looking at this table from Indiana University.

When you design in this domain, you are challenged to move learners from simply being open to a skill to actually embodying that skill. It becomes part of the character of the person and their performance. This means, when possible, the microlearning event should task learners progressively toward embodiment. Ask yourself, "What can they do to show this skill?" Consider job-specific outcomes you'd like to see in your organization and sculpt a mini-version for microlearning events.


Obviously, small doesn’t mean easy. In some ways it can be harder to know that you’re creating the right things, for the right people, and delivering them the right way. I’m working with teams to improve their microlearning processes (especially integrating data collection to raise ROI). Let me know if you could use my help.

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