Teachers work tirelessly to engage students with the material. There’s a lot they need to cover over the year and many topics are foundational. If a student misses key lessons at the start of the year, they might struggle to apply those concepts in the future.
One strategy that more teachers are using to increase information retention is nano-learning, which breaks lessons down into brief, two-minute chunks. Nano-learning takes advantage of several cognitive and psychological elements of the student brain. Learn more about this teaching strategy and why educators are so excited about it.
Nano-Learning Keeps the Brain Focused
There are a lot of myths about child and adult attention spans that do a disservice to our society. It’s easy to claim that attention spans are shrinking because students are attached to their phones or Americans are obsessed with quick TikTok videos. However, many of these myths are unproven or blatantly false.
“Half of us believe the claim that adults today only have an eight-second attention span, even though this has been thoroughly debunked,” says Bobby Duffy, director of the Policy Institute at King’s College London and author of “The Generation Myth.”
“But this doesn’t mean we haven’t seen some real impacts on how we live, particularly in the sheer volume and variety of information available to us today,” Duffy adds. “We’re not preparing our young people – or ourselves – for this new reality as well as we should.”
The way people consume media is changing. Adults and children are still curious and eager to learn and they will seek out entertaining and quick media that satisfy their curiosities.
“An attention span refers to the amount of time a person takes to lose interest in an activity that they are doing,” says occupational therapist Sarah Shakibaie at Ready Kids. When you use that definition, you can see how an attention span is flexible depending on the topic and how it is presented.
Shakibaie explains that it can be easier to sustain the attention of younger students than older ones. Young kids are often curious about a topic because the concept is new to them. However, it is harder to hold the attention spans of teens who are already at least somewhat familiar with the ideas being discussed. While older students might be more physically capable of sitting still and focusing on a task, they might be less engaged in the material.
Nano-learning keeps students engaged by presenting material in ways that make them actively participate in the learning process. This holds their attention longer while also increasing the amount of material that sticks in their brains.
“The hippocampus is your brain’s message center: it filters through information and makes quick judgments about how important or vital that information actually is,” writes the team at ELM Learning, an e-learning development company. “It then sends the vital stuff to long-term memory for storage and later retrieval.”
Long lectures make it hard for the hippocampus to focus, but delivering information in snippets helps it stay alert. With snippets, the brain only needs to focus on those small bits of information instead of parsing what is and isn’t essential. As a result, more valuable information gets sent to long-term memory.
Don’t write off nano-learning as a way to keep up with the “TikTok generation’s short attention spans.” Instead, look at the science of information retention and student engagement.
This Process Taps Into Decomposition
While the name may be new, nano-learning isn’t. The education strategy uses the process of decomposition, breaking large concepts into smaller, more manageable pieces.
“The technique of decomposition is required in computational thinking because it breaks complex tasks into subtasks while developing a sequentially-based understanding of the problem,” writes the team at Learning.com.
“This allows unnecessary information to be discarded, patterns to be identified, relevant information to be extracted and the process of step-by-step resolution to be defined for a more effective problem-solving process.”
Psychologists recommend decomposition to help procrastinators and people who are easily overwhelmed by projects and large tasks. Even breaking the entire math textbook down into chapters and sections is a long-term form of decomposition.
“Without completing a number of minor phases, large tasks cannot be completed,” writes the team at Student Lesson. “Determine what modest steps you can take to further that overarching objective if you feel like your concentration is waning or slipping away. Each task on this list that you complete, no matter how tiny, moves you one step closer to achieving your final goal.”
There’s brain science behind completing a series of small tasks as well. Each completed goal releases the “feel good chemicals” in the brain that make you feel happy, satisfied and accomplished. Students can grow more confident through nano-learning because they can feel proud of the series of tasks they completed.
“Dopamine is considered a ‘reward’ chemical that your brain releases when you’ve achieved (or you’re close to achieving) a goal,” writes the team at online learning provider ICS Learn. “ It creates feelings of motivation, satisfaction and productivity.”
You might notice how decomposition makes you feel good at work or at home. Completing a few items on your to-do list (or chores at home) can make you feel accomplished and less overwhelmed. Hitting these nano goals can also give you the motivation to move forward on longer or more complex tasks.
“I find digging into microproductivity and setting easy-to-accomplish tasks can help motivate me,” says Erik Ofgang, senior staff writer at Tech & Learning. “[Microproductivity can] help us all be a little more efficient, and as most educators already know, small but consistent gains add up over time.”
How Do You Apply Nano-Learning in the Classroom?
Once you break down the psychology behind nano-learning, it can seem like a more appealing — and science-backed — teaching strategy. But how does this theory turn into practice in the classroom?
“Whereas lectures may focus on broader concepts and theory, nano learning presents content in smaller, engaging pieces supported by plenty of concrete examples,” the team at classroom management software provider LanSchool explains.
The authors use the example of a video about the scientific method that pauses periodically to ask questions. The video might ask what a hypothesis is or why data analysis is important. This makes the lesson more digestible and increases retention of the material.
“Nanolearning can also be personalised to meet individual needs,” writes Caroline Cotton, founder of STEM edtech platform BioBrain. “Since nanolearning entails short and concise instruction through audio, video, images, or text, it’s a simple process to assign different nanolearning tasks to individual students based on what they need at any given time.”
This can also help bridge education gaps as students are able to review material and engage with different concepts that they might struggle with without having to review a whole lesson from the beginning.
“If the topic to learn is the size of a pie, nanolearning breaks it into four parts and offers each part as a separate unit,” writes the team at Study International. “This allows viewers to select which part of the pie they want to learn about.”
Nano-learning is a subset of micro-learning. Some educators use the terms interchangeably to discuss breaking down large lessons, while others use one strategy over the other at different times.
“Microlearning is learning that is delivered in brief content modules,” writes the team at the Digital Learning Institute. “Nano learning is similar to microlearning, but the learning sessions are designed to be even smaller.”
Both micro and nano-learning can enhance your lesson plans. They reinforce materials and can give students space to ask questions that develop a deeper understanding of the content.
“Micro and Nano learning focus on meeting the learning needs of the student in a laser-focused manner,” writes edCircuit columnist Devishobha Chandra. “It is especially useful for learning progression – transitioning from what to why to how.”
The Future of Nano-Learning
While nano-learning (breaking down big ideas into smaller bits) isn’t a new concept in education, the way teachers implement it is. More teachers are looking for digital tools, short videos, and even text message apps to add nano-learning to their existing lesson plans.
“As of now, nano-learning techniques are only implemented on enterprise levels – for training and development programs in companies,” writes Lakshmi Puthanveedu at AhaSlides. “Ed-tech companies have also started implementing nano lessons in their courses, but it would still take a while for schools to adapt to this.”
A major corporation might have the budget to implement nano-learning software into its training materials, but most schools and teachers don’t have these funds. And if a school does decide to invest in edtech software with a focus on nano-learning, educators would then have to figure out how to use this tool within their existing teaching style.
“The problem is most teachers don’t teach in the nano style but drown students in content and subject them to overly-long lessons where learning fatigue is guaranteed,” writes educator John Dabell. “How many teachers have ever created their own multimedia nano-lessons?”
Developing nano-learning content video content takes time. While thousands of teachers worked to do this during the pandemic, nano-learning requires a lot of material to ensure every topic is discussed.
“The most common form of nanolearning is video shorts, also known as ‘video pills’ because they are brief and easy to understand,” writes Alicia Verweij, who was an elementary school teacher for 12 years.
Teachers can create their own videos quickly on their phones or use existing YouTube, Instagram, and TikTok content to supplement their lessons. However, it still takes time to search for these videos and add them to lesson plans. Even watching micro videos throughout the day can reduce the amount of teaching time an educator has.
While nano-learning is an exciting way to teach students and keep them engaged, there are still barriers to implementing this learning style. Schools with more resources might be able to afford better teaching tools, but educators in under-funded districts are forced to create their own content or continue to teach by the book.