You’d think being forced to stay at home for extended periods of time would have given us the perfect excuse to finally catch up on all the epic films we’ve put off watching for years and to whiz through the Tolstoy classics collecting dust on our bookshelves.
Instead, for many of us, this year has been marked by concentration killers such as anxiety and the stress of extreme multitasking as we juggled working from home with home schooling our kids and keeping our households safe.
So perhaps it’s no surprise that bite-size formats and short bursts of activity have proved so popular. After all, people often find it easier to absorb new information in smaller chunks – from snappy social media videos to language apps that deliver a small daily dose of easy-to-understand new words and phrases.
Learning in short bursts has a long history. Paper flashcards are thought to date to the early 19th century when the author Favell Lee Mortimer pioneered the concept. But why exactly is bite-size – or micro – learning so helpful? Is it simply because we find it increasingly difficult to focus in our new age of multitasking and distraction? Or is there something more fundamental about the human brain that comes into play?
Firstly, our brains crave novelty. “If we see something new and different, our brains get stimulated with dopamine,” says Stella Collins, chief learning officer at Stellar Labs, which creates science-based training programmes for blue-chip companies. The more visual the better, she adds, citing research from neuroscientists at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), which found that our brains can identify an image seen for as little as 13 milliseconds.
Short is sweet for tasks that require us to learn simple skills, such as rewiring a plug. But it also helps to break down more complicated tasks into more manageable parts. “A series of short videos might be a really good way to help people learn a more complex process such as making a cake,” says Collins.
Length matters because when the clock is ticking, the information being presented is more likely to be clear and unambiguous, says Jonathan Solity, director of Optima Psychology, a consultancy that creates research-based teaching programmes. However, he cautions that seeing something once isn’t usually enough. “The more often you recall something and see something, the more often your brain is persuaded that this is useful information to remember.” This is known as “spaced repetition”, and it explains why flashcard revision while cramming for exams can work for many people.
Collins points out that this makes shorter formats, which can be easily reread or rewatched, particularly useful: “Repeat watching is really good for learning – otherwise, if you watch a series of videos, you might remember the first and last ones but not the ones in between. Spaced repetition is really useful.”
Ray Jimenez, chief learning architect at the California-based Vignettes Learning, adds: “We learn incrementally, one piece of information at a time. We also learn recursively, repeating things until we learn them.” However, Jimenez – whose book, 3-Minute e-Learning, informs his work helping global companies condense their training programmes – draws a crucial distinction between practise and repetition, and emphasises the importance of the former. “Learning, for me, doesn’t mean retaining and memorising a concept, but doing and applying something,” he says.
He isn’t alone. “For microlearning to be effective, you need to be able to show yourself that you are actually learning. You need to be able to use what you have learned,” says Kirstie Greany, a learning consultant at Elucidat, a Brighton-based business that provides a platform for companies to create their own e-learning programmes. She has noticed a shift towards shorter content, as well as video content. She says the snappier, the better: “Less than three minutes is good.”
Experts put this year’s acceleration of these trends down to the pandemic, which is forcing people to learn new tricks in less time just to cope with our changed day-to-day lives. Tara Walsh, the director of engagement and innovation at Belfast-based Makematic, which creates educational videos, says: “Bite-sized learning right now fits in with all the other stuff people are doing. You learn something as you need it, so you don’t want it to be big and bulky.”
Solity says the reason for the mushrooming popularity of social media platforms such as TikTok, which hosts a seemingly endless array of snappy instructional videos, is because what it’s providing is “really, really useful”.
Indeed, while many people associate TikTok with dance challenges, the platform’s 60-second video format has lent itself to a wealth of bite-size how-to content – from language lessons to knitting and macramé-ing a plant holder.
As Jimenez says: “Technology is supporting the way we naturally learn.”
Explore the world of TikTok and discover the joy of learning new things in shorter bursts. What will you #LearnOnTikTok?