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Many educators like myself are feeling the pressures of teaching like never before. One reason is that the pandemic brought a number of new challenges to education, one of which is the learning gap that widened when schools shifted to remote learning.
Fortunately, teachers have become more comfortable with technology during remote learning, and have become more proficient at the very tools that can help kids catch up. Teachers can help students advance more quickly by providing opportunities for nanolearning, which is essentially condensed learning in an engaging format. Think of it as learning by Twitter, YouTube or TikTok.
If that seems alarming to you, keep in mind that this method is backed up by the learning sciences. Providing students with small bits of information over short periods of time helps improve retention, according to a study from Vanderbilt University. It also increases productivity, captures students’ attention and stimulates their ability to learn. Nanolearning could be just the thing to help kids who are lagging behind.
What is nanolearning?
This is an effective learning strategy whether you’re teaching online or in person. Nanolearning has three key aspects:
1. Short bits of content
Content must be concise enough to be consumed in five minutes or less, with two minutes being ideal. Research indicates that our working memory, where we process information, is very small. Presenting students with too much information at one time can confuse them and make it hard to learn content. Keeping the amount of input short — whether it’s a lecture, video or short text — is essential.
Even learning activities — like showing students a short math video and then having them complete a few exercises —-- should be brief.
2. Plenty of examples
For nanolearning to be effective, teachers should give concrete examples or demonstrate a solution, whether the topic is math, science, reading, writing or any other subject. Research indicates that students need cognitive support to help them learn. Therefore, when teachers demonstrate how to work out a problem by illustrating each step, students can focus on each one, which reduces cognitive load.
3. Measurable learning objectives
The content should incorporate at least one learning objective but no more than three, and the learning objectives must be measurable. Effective learning objectives use action verbs to describe what you want your students to be able to do by the end of the class or unit. Aligning assessments with course expectations is much easier when you have written measurable objectives from the beginning. An example would be, Describe the history of the American criminal justice system.
So what does nanolearning look like in the classroom? MooMooMath and Science, a YouTube channel featuring short, simple tutorial videos created by a public school teacher, is a great example of nanolearning aimed at students. The educational videos are clear and about three minutes long. Watch the Steps of the Scientific Method video to see how much information can be packed into small bites of instruction and made simple enough for most students to understand immediately.
The trick to nanolearning is incorporating multiple forms of media within one session. Integrate video, images, text and audio coherently to create engaging content. In addition, be sure to consider vetted teaching products from credible sources to ensure that you are incorporating things that have been proven to work, especially if you are new to nanolearning. Here are three ways you can create your own nanolearning content.
1. Create your own videos
The most common form of nanolearning is video shorts, also known as “video pills” because they are brief and easy to understand. You can create great videos using only your phone, and there are a lot of free and low-cost apps you can choose from to easily edit your videos on a phone, tablet or computer. Get started by watching this tutorial for iMovie.
You can also use existing videos. YouTube, TeacherTube, TedEd and Khan Academy have excellent educational videos that students of all ages will find engaging. There is generally no need to reinvent the wheel, unless there is and then you do.
2. Create your own slideshows
Not all nanolearning is video-based, however. You can create short bits of learning material in slide presentations. Save yourself a lot of time by creating templates in Google Slides that allow you to simply swap in new content without having to completely redo the images and formatting each time. If you aren’t familiar with Google Slides, this video tutorial should be helpful.
I also suggest subscribing to a database of ready-to-use media files (images, graphics and icons). Canva offers access to a lot of its content for free, but there are other services too, such as Artsro, Unsplash and Pixabay.
3. Create your assessments
The traditional method of assessments has the teacher presenting a lesson, then students practicing for a week followed by a big test at the end. With nanolearning, the teacher presents short bits of information, students complete a quick practice, which is followed immediately by a brief assessment. Keep in mind that every step is short and sweet.
Be sure to sprinkle assessments throughout the lesson so you can frequently and quickly assess student understanding. One way to do this is to use tools like Flipgrid or Jamboard to have students create short video responses to a question. You might also use a tool like Kami or Google Forms to allow students to quickly answer questions about a lesson or topic. These tools make it easy to collect answers quickly and easily. These quick checks also work great in remote settings when students are not in the same location as the teacher. If you are teaching online and need additional resource ideas, you might want to check out Top 20 Distance Learning Tools in 2020 from EDGEucating. Many of the tools also fit nicely into the nanolearning model.
Nanolearning lesson examples
Now that we have examined what nanolearning is as well as identifying some tools to facilitate it and methods of assessing it, let’s discuss what a full nanolearning lesson might look like.
If an elementary ELA teacher wanted to present a lesson on how to find the main idea from a text, she might use this one from study.com. The teacher would present a verbal 2-3 minute explanation defining what a main idea is, followed by a short pair-share activity where students are asked to define what a main idea is in their own words to their neighbor.
Then, the teacher could show the short video from the study.com lesson and conclude with the quiz as a form of assessment. This entire lesson can be completed in under 20 minutes but if you examine each piece individually, they are all 2-5 minutes long. This is an ideal nanolearning modeled lesson.
A middle school science teacher might approach nanolearning slightly differently. It might look something like this EdPuzzle lesson on Energy. This lesson takes about five minutes. Students watch a video that is strategically paused at set intervals when students are prompted to answer a question related to each section. This combines the lesson and the assessment in one but breaks it up into smaller chunks and follows the nanolearning guidelines perfectly.
Research presented in Principles of Instruction illustrates that breaking activities up into small steps may require more time but is better for retention.
If you aren’t familiar with EdPuzzle, you can check out EDGEucating’s free tutorial. The teacher might follow this up with another form of assessment using a tool like Flipgrid, where students would be asked to recap what they learned from the video in their own video.
For high school students, nanolearning might look something like this PBS lesson plan. In this lesson, the students begin by watching a video that is less than five minutes long. Next, students pair up and discuss a question. Finally, they prepare an answer not longer than 2 minutes that they will present to the class as an assessment.
Next, the teacher can direct the students to this article by NBC. The teacher can use InsertLearning, in advance, to prepare this article with questions that are built in at various reading intervals as a form of assessment. If you aren’t familiar with InsertLearning, watch this tutorial.
Addressing the ISTE Standards
By its very nature, nanolearning addresses several indicators of the ISTE Standards. It:
- Allows students to “use technology to demonstrate their learning in a variety of ways.” (Empowered Learner, ISTE Standard 1.1.a)
- Allows students to “choose the appropriate platforms and tools for meeting the desired objectives of their communication. (Creative Communicator, ISTE Standard 1.6.a)
- Allows students to “publish or present content that customizes the message and medium for their intended audiences.” (Creative Communicator, ISTE Standard 1.6.d)
When students use a tool like Flipgrid to illustrate what they learned in a video of their own, they then become the teacher. In my experience, flipping the script and giving students the control to choose their own assessment methods makes for more powerful learning than I could ever imagine or assigned myself.
I find that students will often dive deeper into the subject matter on their own simply because they are making the choice rather than being “forced” to do so.
Additionally, be sure to continue to grow with your students to keep your teaching methods and technology implementations fresh and exciting. If you need help to conquer those dreaded edtech fears, check out this video Transforming EdTech Fears Into Faith to help you gain the confidence necessary to make nanolearning technology a success in your classroom.
As a tenured teacher, I have had a lot of success with nanolearning over the years. I’ve seen higher levels of student engagement, almost eliminated discipline issues and have documented improved test scores.
In fact, I wrote a grant related to this very teaching strategy that was implemented and studied the year prior to COVID. The results showed a 49% decrease in the need for Tier II behavior plans and improved classroom management coupled with higher student engagement. That data was based on teacher and student survey responses.
At the start of this grant process, only 15% of students stated they were “very engaged.” By the end, 71.4% claimed to be “very engaged.”
A side benefit of this grant was the increase in technology use and comfort level. Just under 49% of students were only somewhat comfortable with using technology in the classroom to start, and that number increased to 66% by the conclusion.
What effective nanolearning looks like
- Identify a student’s needs and the learning skills they need to improve.
- Consider the learning objective and break it down into what they need to know to reach the objective.
- Each skill is then capsuled into pellet information and delivered through multimedia formats.
- Skills, knowledge and understanding are assessed through peer feedback, mini assessments or flipped classroom model assignments.
Nanolearning is an appealing method to provoke true learning. It shifts the focus from remembering information to building successful learning habits and developing new skills. With nanolearning we are moving toward “learning to learn.”
Alicia Verweij is a seasoned educator who is passionate about teaching children to think critically, problem-solve and function in an ever-changing digital world in preparation for future careers. As a teaching veteran, she holds a master’s in educational leadership, a bachelor’s degree in business management, an Alternate Route Education Certification and an endorsement in gifted education. Over the course of her career, she has been the recipient of numerous grants and awards based on her success in the classroom. Alicia is committed to collaborative, engaging learning techniques and assisting educators in implementing them, which is provided through EDGEucating LLC.