Micro Lessons: What They Are and How They Can Combat Learning Loss

micro lessons
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Micro lessons seem like a simple educational concept: Targeted lessons for students based on their knowledge of the subject matter rather than grade or age. 

“It sounds very obvious, but it almost never happens in education,” says Noam Angrist executive director and co-founder of Young 1ove, a Botswana based organization that implements evidence-based health and education policies in Eastern and Southern Africa. 

Micro lessons, often called teaching at grade level or differentiated learning,  can help students who have fallen behind catch up rather than continue to fall further behind. 

“When children are behind, a lot of instruction tends to be over their head,” says Michelle Kaffenberger, a RISE Research Fellow at the Blavatnik School of Government, University of Oxford, who has studied teaching at grade level. For example, a teacher is teaching division to children who haven't mastered basic addition yet, so they may not learn anything from that lesson. “But if you instead adapt the instruction to teach addition, and then move them up to subtraction, and then multiplication, and then division, then by the time you get there, they're going to learn a lot more,” she says. 

Kaffenberger recently modeled how these types of strategies could be used to overcome learning loss that occurred as a result of disruptions caused by COVID-19 in a paper published in the International Journal of Educational Development

Other research also supports the practice. 

Using this educational strategy in low-income countries was pioneered in the early 2000s by Pratham, an Indian nongovernmental organization, that formalized what became known as Teaching at The Right Level (TaRL) and it has proven successful in many instances. 

“It is probably one of the most well-studied education interventions and reforms in low- and middle-income countries,” Angrist says. “It has six randomized control trials showing it's one of the most cost effective ways to improve learning.” 

But the strategy can also work in high-income countries. 

“It's translating across contexts very well,” Angrist says. 

What Micro Lessons Look Like In Practice  

In the division example above, what the teacher or instructor would do is first administer a simple, kind of back-of-the-envelope assessment across a certain set of skills, Kaffenberger says. From that, they could determine which level each child is at and group them accordingly. 

This typically results in three or four groups. “The children who can't recognize numbers yet, they're going to be together and you're going to focus on recognizing numbers with them,” she says. “And for children who can recognize numbers, but can't do addition and subtraction, you're going to focus on those skills with them.” 

Many of these programs focus on reading and math, two subjects in which knowledge is cumulative. While there are edtech tools that give children exercises that are at their level, Kaffenberger says those programs tend to work best when they are employed by good facilitators and teachers. 

Angrist has been working to implement teaching at grade level strategies in Botswana where many students are not at grade level; for instance, only about 10 percent of fifth grade students can do two-digit division. “That is the bare minimum expectation at grade five,” Angrist says. “Yet you're teaching a grade-level curriculum, day after day, year after year. So of course, that's flying over everyone's head. It's a very inefficient system.” 

Schools that have implemented teaching at grade-level strategies have seen tremendous results. “We have not yet run a randomized control trial, but we collect data actually, every 15 days, to really see learning progress,” Angrist says. Before the teaching at grade level program was implemented, only 10 percent of students were at grade level with math. After these programs were implemented for a term, 80 percent were at grade level. “It’s extraordinary,” Angrist says. 

Implications for The Start of Next School Year  

In high-income countries, this style of teaching, with some variations, is often called differentiated instruction, Angrist says. “But it doesn't get as much attention any more. And I'm not entirely sure why.” 

Kaffenberger says educators across the globe should be aware of the potential of teaching at grade level. She worries that in the upcoming school year teachers will just assume students are fully prepared for their new grade level despite the pandemic learning losses. “I think that would be really devastating for a lot of children, because they missed out on material,” she says. 

Her advice: Teachers need to take seriously that many children will likely be behind. “Start the school year, armed with some basic assessments,” she says. “Then do some grouping by learning levels. And then focus on getting the children that are most behind caught up.” 

The research indicates that doing this could make a huge impact on student achievement. 

Erik Ofgang

Erik Ofgang is a Tech & Learning contributor. A journalist, author and educator, his work has appeared in The New York Times, the Washington Post, the Smithsonian, The Atlantic, and Associated Press. He currently teaches at Western Connecticut State University’s MFA program. While a staff writer at Connecticut Magazine he won a Society of Professional Journalism Award for his education reporting. He is interested in how humans learn and how technology can make that more effective.