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Post: Outside the Box: This Gen Z learning method is superior to the old ways of doing things

I recently had to install a new printer, and my first thought was to read the manual. My teenage son, of a generation born with phones in their hands, turned to YouTube instead. Guess who ended up installing that printer?

There’s a name for this concept: microlearning. We’ve long known that our minds can only absorb so much. According to German psychologist Hermann Ebbinghaus, we forget 90% of information we consume within seven days. Yet by breaking our intake into bursts of five to 20 minutes — and using more immersive means like podcasts or videos — our retention is higher.

Gen Z has taught us that such learning is more consonant with our busy lives. This young generation has a much higher rate of cell phone ownership: Some 96% of those 18 to 29 own one, as opposed to 61% of people over 65, per the Pew Research Center. And when Gen Z are on their phones, they’re on them a lot, with one in four spending more than five hours a day on their devices, according to research conducted by IBM and the National Retail Federation. They use phones often for self-education, with 36% using devices to do schoolwork and 28% to learn new things.

Microlearning can be used with virtually any topic. If you want to change the oil on your car, dozens of videos await to show you how. If you want to learn French, Duolingo will have you conversing with a digital clerk to order a baguette at a Parisian bakery. If you want to speak about a specific topic, TED Talks are at your service.

This kind of learning can be amplified by memory apps like Anki. Say you’re studying for an exam. You want to remember critical points of the materials. You simply create digital flashcards, and the algorithm will quiz you in the days leading up to the exam, using spaced repetition to reinforce your knowledge.

Think of it as akin to building a hiking path in the forest. Under traditional learning, you would walk the path so infrequently that it would require you to rebuild it every time you returned. Through microlearning, you instead walk the path regularly, with repetition keeping vegetation from growing there and etching the route into your memory.

The beauty is that it is easy, wastes little time and is often free. You can dip your toe in anywhere, knowing you can bail if it’s not for you.

Start with what you want to learn and what your goal is. Say you need to learn some basic organic chemistry in order to work with a new client you’ve been assigned to. You can find a YouTuber who offers tutorials, such as the Organic Chemistry Tutor, to bring you up to speed.

An onslaught of Excel directions isn’t the easiest to digest, especially if you’re not proficient in Microsoft Office. To help, you could pay for nano-courses from an expert like Miss Excel.

Perhaps your job requires a range of conversant knowledge, rather than a specific expertise. Maybe you need to know a little about marketing, product management and cybersecurity so you won’t be dumbfounded at meetings. You can spend 20 minutes on LinkedIn Learning once a day to understand the key elements of these disciplines.

Microlearning goes beyond just acquiring career skills; it’s also essential for lifelong learning. If you want to be healthier, for instance, you can follow social media influencers who model and give tips for leading a more wholesome lifestyle. One good example of this is the Instagram account @eatinghealthytoday, which shows you how to make healthy meals in under a minute.

As the metaverse develops in the coming years, this mode of learning is likely to become more experiential. Think about using virtual reality (VR) to visit ancient Greece and listen to Socrates. A full body and mind experience, targeting all the senses, will help you remember what he says.

This isn’t science fiction. Some companies are already using VR, for example, when it’s difficult to train employees from a manual. Say a retailer wants their salesforce to learn how to deal with angry customers. Using VR to make them practice how to soothe a seemingly real customer with specific issues opens pathways to learning that simple text cannot. It’s also more effective and efficient than conducting lengthy role-playing sessions in a conference room, allowing entire departments to learn at once — including from their desks or homes.

The older we get, the more averse we tend to be to changing our ways. Maybe apps and social media seem outside your realm and you think microlearning is not for you. But don’t be scared away by technology; that’s just one aspect of microlearning. In fact, you’ve been using microlearning all your life.

When you first learned to ride a bike, you didn’t turn to a manual. You learned experientially through repeated attempts to make it down the sidewalk. Today’s microlearning isn’t much different. You’re simply using technology to get there faster — in the same way you once used that bike to move more quickly to the playground.  

Barbara Petitt is the managing director of professional learning at the CFA Institute.

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