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The Best and Worst of Bite-Size Learning

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The evidence is clear: bite-size learning is cheaper and more effective. It has also been available for some time. In 1999, research published in the Journal of Applied Psychology revealed that a distributed approach to learning can increase transfer by 17 percent. In 2002, the BBC compared a bite-size approach with longer training and found that bite-size resulted in greater understanding, application and retention than a day-long equivalent. Further, when calculating costs, the savings of a bite-size approach can be up to 30 percent.

Yet some organizations struggle to adopt a bite-size approach. What are the barriers to bite-size?

Believing longer equals better: Prevailing wisdom dictates the longer we spend in training, the better. Not only is this false, it’s irrational. Just as travelers prefer reaching their destination faster, learning quality should be judged by outcome, not length.

Catering to outliers: Designers design for the slowest learner, the biggest skeptic and the greatest collaborator. Learning becomes bloated, lethargic, crammed with answers to every imaginable question or so facilitative that everyone wants to shake the trainer and say, “Just tell us the answer.”

Treating everyone the same: Everyone goes through the same agenda, no matter what his or her experience, personality or challenges. It’s the reverse of the Pareto principle: People spend just 20 percent of the day on things that matter to them.

Making the event the hero: Events are scheduled, costs calculated and reactions measured. But according to research conducted by World Bank and Robert Brinkerhoff, professor emeritus at Western Michigan University, development programs fail because of poor event design less than 20 percent of the time. More than 40 percent of the time, failure is due to poor upfront engagement and poor sustainment afterward. A bite-size approach reduces this risk by making transfer the hero of the program.

Questioning the cost: The cost of change — administrative, political or otherwise — is sometimes cited as a barrier to moving to a bite-size approach. But typically this calculation ignores the most significant cost — the participants’ time. Because of the reduced participant time and better impact of a bite-size approach, those who calculate learning ROI are likely to see double the return when compared to more traditional approaches.

There are several bite-size enablers, however.

Miniaturization: With bite-size, less is more. Short, regular periods of high-intensity exercise get you fitter faster than endurance training. Bite-size learning gets to the outcome faster. By combining bursts of energy with sufficient reflection time, light bulb moments that challenge the way people think and behave are triggered.

Contextualization: Our job isn’t to help participants learn; it’s to help them solve real-world problems. The starting point for design should be what you want people to do when they leave. We can’t ignore the desired business outputs; the trick is to find a balance between what learners need and what the business expects.

Mass-customization: Transfer is increased when participants feel that learning is relevant and personalized. Bite-size means you don’t have to pick a whole course. By offering learning bites that are directly relevant to organizational outcomes, a balance can be struck between individual choice and offerings that can be delivered at scale.

Focus on transfer: The more psychologically engaged participants are, the more likely they are to apply what they learn. Bite-size, distributed sessions provide more opportunities to engage. They consolidate participants’ prior learning with tools and techniques to practice back at work. Sustainment is therefore built into the experience, not tacked on as an afterthought.

Deliver to unarticulated, unmet needs: Innovation in learning and development functions comes from understanding learners’ unarticulated, unmet needs. For many people, there is a strong desire to develop, but little time to do it, and traditional training methods fail to represent culture focused on performance and efficiency. A bite-size approach is therefore welcomed by progressive organizations seeking to breathe new life into how they develop their people.