Training News

Quick Tips from ATD 2016: Bite-Sized Learning

Bite-sized learning has been much discussed in the training world, but for all of its demonstrated benefits, it hasn’t been quick to be adopted in a traditional training world. FranklinCovey’s Matt Murdoch and Treion Muller have some thoughts on the power of bite-sized learning—and tips for trainers who want to use it.

Murdoch and Muller presented their thoughts on bite-sized learning at the annual Association for Talent Development (ATD) Conference and Exposition held recently in Denver, Colorado.

The world has gotten big and also very small, says Murdoch. The Internet and outsourcing are leading to a “learning explosion” with a huge amount of information. Inversely, we carry computers small enough to fit in our pockets.

With all of these factors competing for learners’ attention, research is demonstrating that bite-sized learning is very effective, i.e., 20-minute chunks of learning at a time.

Less Is More

Think about some of the greatest speeches in history, says Muller. Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation and Gettysburg Address, JFK’s inaugural address, Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream,” and Patrick Henry’s “Give me liberty or give me death.” They were all less than 20 minutes. These great leaders inspired and changed behavior in such a short time. So, asks Muller, “Why has the training industry continued to put out day-long training curriculums?” Do we consider workers to be drones? Or is there a certain amount of overall corporate conditioning?

To drive the point home, Muller quoted from E.F. Schumacher’s Small is Beautiful: “Any intelligent fool can make things bigger, more complex, and more violent. It takes a touch of genius, and a lot of courage, to move in the opposite direction.”

Is Google Making Us Stupid?

Probably not literally, but it does seem to have shortened our attention spans. We’re more conditioned for the quick, the fast, and the immediate. Your learners probably feel the exact same way, says Murdoch. Trainers may very well need to adapt to this new normal, but studies on human attention and memory—and its limits—aren’t new at all.

Murdoch mentions George Miller and his Information Process Theory, introduced in 1956. It effectively demonstrated that 7 items, plus or minus 2, is the number of things an individual can hold in working memory. Twenty years later, Johnstone and Percival’s paper “Attention Breaks in Lectures” showed that people are capable of 10–18 minutes of really being focused—but then learning capacity drops off immediately. After a rest or break, focused attention returns for another 7–9 minutes.

For a recent example of effective communication that fits these attention models, Murdoch points to TED talks. TED talks are no longer than 18 minutes—long enough to be serious, but short enough to keep peoples’ attention. It makes the presenter get out the most important point, which is a lesson for trainers: Hone your message, otherwise you will just go on and on and on.

Fixing the Problem

So, how can trainers take this information and use it to help boost the impact of their sessions or classes? Muller and Murdoch present some suggestions:

  • Reduce cognitive load. George Miller introduced the “magic number 7” in his Information Process Theory, which led to Cognitive Load Theory. How to you keep from overloading someone’s brain? The goal is efficiency in learning—not overloading, but still teaching.
  • Focus attention—don’t split it. For example, putting a figure or model on the back of a page that describes it splits attention as the learner is constantly referencing back and forth. Visuals, like words, need to be focused.
  • Weed your training. While storytelling can help presentations, don’t add a story that doesn’t relate. Get trainees a concept, solution, or point ASAP.
  • Provide external memory support. Cheat sheets or toolkits can help trainees remember things later that they couldn’t keep in working memory during the session.


In tomorrow’s Advisor, we present tips from ATD on measuring the return on investment of your training programs.