Short and Sweet: The Educational Benefits of Microlectures and Active Learning

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The combination of short videos and the techniques of active learning can create rich, engaging educational experiences to maximize learning.

Short and Sweet: The Educational Benefits of Microlectures and Active Learning
Credit: Fehmiu Roffytavare / © 2021

Josh is one of 27 undergraduates who registered for Dr. Thomas's instructional design course. Before a class session, he watched one short video on the Blackboard learning management system (LMS) of Thomas elaborating situated cognition theory. Josh saw that Thomas was sitting behind the screen as a real person and talking to him.

Within the first minute of each video lecture, Thomas used a course map to introduce the topic, learning objectives, instructional materials, and learning activities to be covered in the lecture. Then, she shared PowerPoint slides of the course content. On one slide, Thomas used a diagram to illustrate the key tenets of situated cognition theory.

A few minutes later, Thomas stopped sharing her content and instructed Josh to complete three built-in, graded, multiple-choice questions. Josh saw that the video paused and a question popped up. After clicking on the Submit button for the last question, Josh saw that his score report showed up and indicated that he got one question wrong. The system allowed retaking, so Josh took the quiz once again. Then, Josh clicked on the Continue button, seeing that Thomas had reappeared on the screen. Thomas shared a PDF document that introduced an instructional design project using situated cognition theory.

Afterward, Thomas summed up the content and provided instruction on how to complete a one-minute "muddiest point" assignment in which students consider the part of the lesson they least understood. The assignment required Josh to post a written response on a discussion forum, in which Thomas posted the question, "What was most confusing about today's lecture?" Following the instruction, Josh quickly found the forum and posted his response. Then, Josh turned the video off.

What Is a Microlecture?

A microlecture is a short video, usually produced by the instructor, that explains a single key concept or a specific skill. Microlectures have received increasing attention from researchers trying to understand how to make such videos effective, robust components of online, hybrid, or face-to-face instruction. A microlecture incorporates a set of innovative instruction features by including cognitive science and research findings, tackling the inadequacies of traditional instructional videos, and improving student performance in various ways.

First, a microlecture is short and concise. The duration of a microlecture is generally less than 10 minutes. Compared with traditional instructional videos that record a class session that is 45 minutes or even longer, microlectures have the advantage of acknowledging the typical student's attention span and thus sustaining students' focused attention to the content. Research suggests that shorter tutorials promote learning engagement, whereas learning activities that use longer videos result in significantly decreased engagement.Footnote1 The brevity of the form does, however, not suggest a reduction in course design. The design of a microlecture emphasizes the incorporation of a complete set of course components that are aligned and work together to create a meaningful learning experience for students.

Second, a microlecture featuring the instructor as a talking head facilitates instructor presence in an online course. According to social agency theory, seeing the instructor helps students feel that the instructor is providing direct instruction, producing a feeling of connection to the instructor and the course, which contributes to students' persistence and retention in online courses.Footnote2 Empirical research has found that seeing the instructor in videos can increase students' perceived learning and satisfaction in online courses, and students experience a significantly lower level of mental effort when the instructor is "present" in a video that covers a difficult topic.Footnote3

Third, a microlecture is an interactive video featuring active learning. Traditional instructional videos focus on transmissionist approaches in which instructors deliver teaching by telling, using a video platform.Footnote4 In comparison, microlectures feature constructivist approaches that encourage students to confront misconceptions and connect new information to existing knowledge and experiences, supporting students' reconstructing their mental models based on more accurate understanding.Footnote5 Online students learn more when they interact and participate more. Empirical research has revealed positive impacts of active learning approaches on increasing student performance; for example, failure rates for students in traditional learning are 55% higher than the rates observed under active learning.Footnote6 Meanwhile, although active learning benefits all students, it significantly impacts female students' performance, eliminating the gender gap.Footnote7 Adopting effective active learning approaches to adapt to different instructional modalities is the most robust, dynamic feature that can help microlectures outperform other types of instructional videos. Several active learning approaches can be interspersed into a microlecture with the support of various technologies.

Active Learning Approaches to Use with Microlectures

The goal of interspersing microlectures with active learning is to increase student engagement. Student accountability for engagement should be part of the approach because students might not otherwise watch a microlecture.Footnote8 Combining pause points with interactive quizzes, tasks requiring written responses, or taking notes can provide observable evidence to check student engagement.

Building in Pause Points. Pause for one or two minutes at a specific point, providing meaningful learning tasks—such as encouraging students to explore a visual diagram or reflecting on the process—that can help achieve the target learning objectives. The approach can vary, such as asking students to pause a microlecture video or adding a countdown timer in the video to force a pause point.Footnote9 The system-made pause provides students with an opportunity for clarifying their understanding of the presented information. Video lectures with system-paced pauses have been shown to significantly increase learning when compared with lectures without pauses or those that allow learner-paced pauses.Footnote10

Embedding Interactive Quizzes. Embed quizzes at a specific pause point and require students to complete them. Each quiz automatically pauses video playback. Cloud-based video platforms such as Panopto and Camtasia provide the capability to allow students to retake quizzes, see their grades, review the correct answers, or provide explanations to correct answers. Empirical research reveals that video lectures embedded with interactive quizzes can significantly increase learning performance when compared with video lectures without quizzes.Footnote11

Assigning Tasks That Require Written Responses. Assign a task at a specific pause point and require students to submit their written responses. The task can be as simple as asking students to post on a discussion board. Many learning management systems (LMSs) include a feature that hides previously posted responses on discussion boards so that students cannot see them until they post a response. Also, many LMSs support an LTI integration with Microsoft Office 365 for administrating collaborative assignments on OneDrive (similar to Google Drive). Alternatively, the task can be an assignment that requires students to reflect on their learning or engage in critical thinking. This approach encourages students to examine and articulate newly formed connections. Empirical research shows that students learn better from an instructional video that requires them to explain the material.Footnote12

Creating Time to Take Notes. Pause for one to two minutes several times, encouraging students to take notes in a skeletal outline of what they have learned from the preceding content. This approach prompts students to retrieve and reorganize information from memory, improving their ability to translate information to new domains. Empirical research shows that students learn better from an instructional video that requires them to take summary notes.Footnote13

Techniques for Developing a Microlecture

The overall quality of a microlecture is also impacted by techniques used in the developing, recording, delivering, and captioning process. If designed meticulously, minor components can be engaging and motivating.

Developing. Create PowerPoint slides to organize the content. In the first two slides, the lecture introduces the topic and the target learning objectives. Leverage verbal communication by appropriately using pictorial methods such as images, diagrams, or videos to accommodate different learners' preferences.

Recording. Writing out a script of your microlecture helps ensure that your content is clear and organized and can also help gauge the video's approximate length by using a tool such as Edge Studio's time calculator. Don't worry if you stumble over your words. The video lecture should mimic what you will say during a face-to-face class session. Avoid rambling, and stick to your script.Footnote14

Delivering. Microlectures are easy to integrate into a curriculum using a variety of approaches; for example, a microlecture can be adopted as a learning activity in a flipped classroom. Also, microlectures can be used to make quick fixes to, tweak, or update course content as needed.Footnote15 Name a microlecture using a title that is specific to the concept addressed in the video, ensuring that students can easily locate the lectures they need.Footnote16 Add keywords in the description of the activity.

Captioning. Providing accurate captions is conducive to ensuring that microlectures can reach all learners, including students with disabilities and those who speak another language. There are two common approaches to generating captions. One simple and quick approach is to use auto-generated captions; however, the accuracy of auto-generated captions is generally not satisfactory due to various types of errors. Thus, it is highly recommended to post the written transcript as a downloadable or auto-preview caption file under the video when using auto-generated captions. The second approach is to upload the written transcript to a video platform to generate accurate closed captions (cc). However, the format of the transcript might need to be transformed into the captions format file that the video platform requires; for example, YouTube requires .sbv files, while Microsoft Stream requires .vtt files. This approach is more complicated and time-consuming compared with the first approach, and thus it is recommended when you have technology specialists to assist with the work.


The goal of interspersing a microlecture with active learning approaches is to improve student engagement and learning performance when participating in online, hybrid, or face-to-face instruction. Empirical studies have shown that active learning approaches, such as combining pause points with interactive quizzes, tasks requiring written responses, or note taking, can improve student performance. Moreover, current education technologies support the creation of microlectures that incorporate evidence-based active learning approaches.


  1. Philip J. Guo, Juho Kim, and Rob Rubin, "How Video Production Affects Student Engagement: An Empirical Study of MOOC Videos," in Proceedings of the First ACM conference on Learning@ Scale Conference, March 2014: 41–50. Jump back to footnote 1 in the text.
  2. Linda B. Nilson and Ludwika A. Goodson, Online Teaching at Its Best: Merging Instructional Design with Teaching and Learning Research (San Francisco: John Wiley & Sons, 2021). Jump back to footnote 2 in the text.
  3. Jiahui Wang and Pavlo D. Antonenko, "Instructor Presence in the Instructional Video: Effects on Visual Attention, Recall, and Perceived Learning," Computers in Human Behavior 71, no. 2 (January 2017): 79–89. Jump back to footnote 3 in the text.
  4. Cynthia Brame, "Active Learning," Vanderbilt University Center for Teaching, 2016. Jump back to footnote 4 in the text.
  5. Ibid. Jump back to footnote 5 in the text.
  6. Scott Freeman, Sarah L. Eddy, Miles McDonough, Michelle K. Smith, Nnadozie Okoroafor, Hannah Jordt, and Mary Pat Wenderoth, "Active Learning Increases Student Performance in Science, Engineering, and Mathematics," Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 111, no. 23 (2014): 8,410–8,415. Jump back to footnote 6 in the text.
  7. Mercedes Lorenzo, Catherine H. Crouch, and Eric Mazur, "Reducing the Gender Gap in the Physics Classroom," American Journal of Physics 74, no.2 (January 13, 2006): 118–122. Jump back to footnote 7 in the text.
  8. Michelene T.H. Chi and Ruth Wylie, "The ICAP Framework: Linking Cognitive Engagement to Active Learning Outcomes," Educational Psychologist 49, no. 4 (October 2, 2014): 219–243. Jump back to footnote 8 in the text.
  9. Association of College and University Educators, Developing Effective Modules and Microlectures, Effective Online Teaching Practices (online course), 2020. Jump back to footnote 9 in the text.
  10. Nicola Biard, Salomé Cojean, and Eric Jamet, "Effects of Segmentation and Pacing on Procedural Learning by Video," Computers in Human Behavior 89 (December 2017): 411–417. Jump back to footnote 10 in the text.
  11. Cynthia J. Brame and Rachel Biel, "Test-Enhanced Learning: The Potential for Testing to Promote Greater Learning in Undergraduate Science Courses," CBE—Life Sciences Education 14, no. 2 (2015): es4. Jump back to footnote 11 in the text.
  12. Richard E. Mayer, Logan Fiorella, and Andrew Stull, "Five Ways to Increase the Effectiveness of Instructional Video," Educational Technology Research and Development 68, no.3 (2020): 837–852. Jump back to footnote 12 in the text.
  13. Pam A. Mueller and Daniel M. Oppenheimer, "The Pen is Mightier Than the Keyboard: Advantages of Longhand over Laptop Note Taking," Psychological Science 25, no. 6 (April 23, 2014): 1,159–1,168. Jump back to footnote 13 in the text.
  14. Association of College and University Educators, Developing Effective Modules and Microlectures. Jump back to footnote 14 in the text.
  15. "7 Things You Should Know About Microlectures," EDUCAUSE Learning Initiative, November 1, 2021. Jump back to footnote 15 in the text.
  16. Association of College and University Educators, Developing Effective Modules and Microlectures. Jump back to footnote 16 in the text.

Hua Zheng is an Instructional Designer at Charles R. Drew University of Medicine and Science.

© 2022 Hua Zheng. The text of this work is licensed under a Creative Commons BY-SA 4.0 International License.