Micro-Learning Simulation Cases to Augment Classroom Learning

I recently talked with Dennis Rees, CEO of NexLearn, about his company’s use of “Micro-Learning Objects”—subscription learning nuggets used to reinforce previously-encountered learning objectives. He told me about a program NexLearn helped develop that focused on stroke prevention and atrial fibrillation, delivered to board-certified family physicians. By providing subscription-learning nuggets starting four weeks after an in-class learning experience, learning results improved dramatically.

Here’s how the program worked. Physicians would come to a classroom to learn concepts in a three hour session. About half of the session was devoted to using scenario-based questions presented through two video-based cases. The facilitator, a nationally-recognized expert on atrial fibrillation, introduced concepts and took people through two cases.

At various times during the video, the facilitator would pause the action and present learners with multiple-choice questions asking for their recommendations on the case situation. The participants played the role of a doctor taking over an ongoing practice. They were coached in the simulation by the practice’s soon-to-be retiring doctor.

The in-class portion of the learning was co-developed by NexLearn and its partner Edumotion and delivered using Edumotions’ Ambient audience-response technology. The program captured learner data that helped assign subscription-learning nuggets based on each learner’s performance in the classroom cases.

After the initial three-hour learning session, the physicians returned to their regular workplaces. Depending on how they had performed in the classroom cases, the doctors were assigned to one or more micro-learning objects. As reflected in the graphic below, the MLO’s (micro-learning objects), were delivered every two weeks starting four weeks after the end of the classroom sessions. Some learners were assigned with all three MLO’s, some got two, and some got one.

As you can see in the graphic, the pretest to posttest improvement was 38.5%, raising performance from about 40% to about 80%. Obviously, this result is due to the whole learning experience—not just the additional subscription-learning nuggets. Still, the relatively short micro-learning objects (about 5 to 12 minutes long) seem to have supported the initial 3-hour classroom experience in helping learners remember.  Consider that 10 weeks after the classroom experience (and two weeks after the final micro-learning object, learners understood and remembered very complex drug recommendations and other complicated information at a very high level.

To create these micro-learning objects—and the web-based portion of the program—NexLearn utilized its proprietary simulation authoring tool, SimWriter. One of the benefits of SimWriter is that it can publish its programs to the cloud—thus enabling it to create subscription-learning nuggets (or what NexLearn calls “micro-learning objects”).

One of Dennis’s lessons-learned in building learning programs and authoring tools over the years is that there is value in being a “Master Mechanic.” While he reads ample amounts of stuff based on research and the insights of other learning practitioners, he and his colleagues have also learned a ton by simply being reflective practitioners—that is, trying things out that seem reasonable based on research and best practices, measuring learning results in relatively rigorous ways, and making improvements based on their findings. More elearning companies should do the same—elearning is a technology that enables data-gathering. More of us should collect data to help us build virtuous cycles of continuous improvement.

While subscription learning nuggets are typically less than five minutes long, the program Dennis shared with me shows that rigid assumptions about timing don’t necessarily apply. Indeed, the complexity of the content and the use of contextually-appropriate scenario-based decisions required that each subscription-learning nugget took more than five minutes of learning time.

The bottom line thing we have to remember in any learning program is that we have to provide learners with the right level of scaffolding (1) to motivate them to apply what they’ve learned, (2) to build correct mental models of the content, (3) to support learners in remembering, and (4) to enable after-learning follow-through. The NexLearn program did an especially good job of providing the three most critical factors in supporting remembering. It provided the learners with retrieval practice, aligned with meaningful performance contexts, and spaced repetitions of realistic practice over time. To provide such strong support for remembering, a little extra time was needed—a very smart tradeoff!


NexLearn (disclosure: which has invited me to keynote and teach workshops at its Immersive Learning University conference), is known for its simulation-based elearning programs, its simulation authoring tool SimWriter, and its custom elearning-development services.