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Mar 2016

Short doesn't have to mean shallow

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Shaping the future of learning

In the age of giving learners what they want and a drive for shorter content, might we forget to provide deep learning? Be smart with learners' time by providing short, stretching experiences that stick.

True learning isn’t easy

Learning comes from within and can happen in an individual for all sorts of reasons. One person’s 'Eureka!' moment will be different from the next. As learning designers our role is to provide experiences that are most likely to bring about change in an individual. We are asking them to not only learn something but change the way they perform or behave as a result. 

True learning is not easy. We are creatures of habit, we can fall into groupthink or cultural influences, and it takes effort to learn – to literally break and make new neurological bonds in the brain uses a lot of energy, especially to make new, strong connections. It takes conscious effort to change the way we act. 

We ask a lot of learners, and this is in part why we need to empathise with them and motivate them to learn and change – to engage the heart and the head in the journey, in a way that’s relevant to them. Park those thoughts for a moment whilst we turn to learners’ needs.

What do we know about modern-day learners?

We hear a couple of resounding messages about our audiences today: 

The need for speed

We often hear that they have little time for learning, and the content we create is competing for attention against a whole swath of ‘stuff’. Rightly so, there’s a pressure to keep learning content short and sharp - the microlearning movement. 

The need to personalise

There’s also a need to personalise learning content. One, to help alleviate the content shock felt by our audiences as they are inundated with messages, requests, chats and other content everyday (Searched for, or pushed out). 

Two, because they are doing it for themselves anyway. In the age of consumerisation of learning, learners will go to what they prefer. Who wouldn’t? Seeking out what they need, when they want it, in the format they like. 

Three, because relevant, tailored content makes better use of the audience’s precious time and is more likely to lead to change in them.

So what’s the problem?

It would seem that we all need to be delivering short, relevant, personalised learning content, right?. Well, yes, but there’s a potential thorn among the roses. There’s a risk that in trying to meet learner’s preferences, some organisations may tip their strategy too far towards providing short, ‘look-up’ type resources and forget to include deep learning moments. There might be a fear in asking learners to do anything too difficult, in case they are driven away. 

Quick quicky bling bling

Could we end up moving from what Cammy Bean called ‘Clicky clicky bling bling’ to ‘Quicky quicky bling bling’ i.e. lots of short but shallow content?

Content that is easy to access or consume doesn’t necessarily mean it leads to easier or quicker learning. Not when we talk about learning as a deep change in behaviour or performance. Controversially, busy learners may not benefit if we all provide them with short, bitesize resources. Even if they are searchable. It will add to the mountain of stuff to wade through. 

Effort in = effort out

For deep, longer term behaviour change to take place, we need learners to do a little work for it. Studies show we learn more when we are challenged. Whilst we need quick reference materials and performance support, we just can’t skip the deep stuff. At least, not for skills or behavioural training. 

What is deep learning? 

Deep learning doesn’t mean long. It certainly shouldn’t mean dull (a really well designed piece of interactive video can provide a really rich learning experience in five minutes). But it should be mind-expanding, thought provoking, and challenging; requiring some genuine effort, because: 

“The more effort you have to expend to retrieve knowledge or skills the more the practice of retrieval will entrench it.” - Peter Brown in Make it Stick 

Ways you might be able to bring deeper learning into play could include smart, creatively designed: 

  • Simulations
  • Interactive videos
  • Scenarios
  • Immersive games
  • Short but increasingly difficult challenges 

Deep learning also happens when we expand concepts through talking them through, sharing stories, and adding context. Neuroscience tells us that doing so literally expands the mental network, connecting ideas together like the formation of a tapestry, strengthening neural bonds. Create meaningful and challenging conversations with social learning, such as: 

  • Online discussions
  • Virtual classrooms
  • Group activities
  • Coaching conversations
  • Role plays

None of these ideas is rocket science, but it's about not being scared of stretching learners with them. They also shouldn’t be a one-off.

Go for spaced practice

We know that for long-term behaviour change, and to avoid the forgetting curve, we need to extend the learning journey. We often look to provide quick tips in emails, mobile reminders or a short quiz. But research shows that lighter touch reminders or revisitations of content provides a momentary refresh only. 

To more deeply entrench learning, it’s back to the challenging content. Brown in Make it Stick explains how ‘spaced practice’ drives deeper learning - interactive scenarios and practice role plays that are delivered at increments, and that stretch and test people, perhaps increasingly so, will pay off in the long game. Stella Collins also backs this in Neuroscience for Learning and Development.

Be smart with solutions 

We’re certainly not suggesting you ignore learners’ needs - quite the opposite. Designing an effective learning solution should always start with empathy for the audience: getting under the skin of their wants, needs and preferences. You won’t be able to create effective, deep moments if you don’t do this. 

In order to be kind to learners and make the best use of their precious time, look to create smart solutions that strike the balance between really well designed, relevant deep-dive experiences, filtered performance support resources, and meaningful social learning activities. It might feature just one element from each camp, or be a larger blend, but be smart with learners' time. 

Consider a blend that wraps itself around a handful of core, deep challenges that bring multiple, related skills into play. It helps join up the dots between related skills so time invested is well spent and it feels more naturally in synch with real life, where skills do intertwine.  Or consider a microlearning strategy that provides an incremental journey to building new skills, and don’t be scared to turn up the difficulty factor. 

In my reflections on Learning Insights, I suggested we simplify design. Easy to access? Yes. Easy to use? Yes. But don't confuse that with watering down the learning. 

Rather than having learners splashing about in the shallow end, take the plunge with some quick dips in the deep end. It’s fun down there. It maximises that precious time. Plus if you’re measuring performance impact, it will pay off in the long run. 

If you want help working out what your learners' need, how to structure an effective blend or design deep learning experiences that work, get in touch.

References and further reading:

  • Make It Stick: The Science of Successful Learning: Brown, Roediger, McDaniel.
  • Neuroscience for Learning and Development: Stella Collins

If you want to brush up on learner preferences, read this Towards Maturity report 



Shaping the future of learning

Kineo helps the world’s leading businesses improve performance through learning and technology. We’re proud of our reputation for being flexible and innovative, and of our award-winning work with clients across the world.

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