From 3 minutes on screen to defending in person: Doctoral grad Nidhi Sachdeva earns success on thesis journey
There was nervous excitement in the Zoom green room as Nidhi Sachdeva awaited her turn to make her 3-minute case for her doctoral thesis.
“Let’s start with the challenge – the challenge of Massed learning. It’s when students try to fit all their learning tasks over one extended study session, like cramming the night before an exam. Sounds familiar?” began Sachdeva, who held her own among a nine-person panel for the 2023 Three-Minute Thesis competition (3MT). “I started to wonder if microlearning could help.”
Her doctoral thesis – titled “small bites = BIG GAINS! Breaking Massed Learning Habits Through Microlearning,” for this competition – placed second overall, making Sachdeva the only OISE grad student to be ever placed in Top 3 since the competition started in 2013. Dr. Sachdeva, a doctoral candidate who successfully defended this thesis to her committee in April, was in high spirits speaking about her successes this spring.
“I don't necessarily get nervous. The only time I think I do is when it’s just technologies failing me or some crazy things happen,” said Dr. Sachdeva, who is based in OISE’s department of Curriculum, Teaching, and Learning. To facilitate her prep, she reached out to judges from her heats, asking for any individualized feedback. She also knew that her expertise in microlearning, an approach to learning new information in small chunks at a time, would whip her in into 3MT shape.
“I know how to also simplify content into bite size [pieces] and make it more accessible to the general population, that it's not just [understood to] me or my inner circle,” she said.
Three Minutes to Defend
“Microlearning is an instructional approach in which learners are exposed to learning content in short bursts or small bites,” continued Dr. Sachdeva, during her three-minute defense. “Microlearning is what the learners are doing knowingly or unknowingly when faced with a gap in knowledge.
When done well, she continued, “microlearning also aligns with how learning happens in our brain and that too much information all at once can overload it. How about we learn in small bites?”
“So, what did I do? I developed a model called midweek microlesson. I designed and infused learning content as a microlesson in an online course to break the massed learning habit.”
And it was that approach that drew praise from the judges, post-competition, and from Dr. Sachdeva’s academic colleagues and mentors. For Dr. Clare Brett, who was on her dissertation committee as her supervisor, Dr. Sachdeva clearly brought the passion, engagement and learning that she brought to the thesis itself.
“Nidhi loves to learn as much as she can from each of her experiences and I was proud of her for putting herself out there for this event so close to her Final Oral Examination for her PhD,” said Dr. Brett, a professor in education and applied cognitive science. “I actually think it helped her navigate the oral exam more confidently as well.
“The other aspect of this 3-minute competition,” she added, “is that a qualitative thesis is a lot harder to effectively summarize than many theses in STEM areas, for example, so good for Nidhi for getting out there and showing how to do it!”
The 3MT was an exciting and invigorating competition, Dr. Sachdeva says, and it was an incredible way to finish her doctoral work. She also believes the competition was the perfect stage to more broadly discuss her research.
“This is a very, very important time, that we are starting to finally openly discuss the science of learning,” she says. “Me, having an opportunity to say that to the entire University of Toronto Community, that was an opportunity I knew I was not ready to let go of. And the 3MT gave me that space.”
One idea, during the pandemic, launched her thesis
After many years of serving as a language instructor and working as an entrepreneur, Dr. Sachdeva came back to OISE in 2019. She knew, in those early days, that the 3MT would have been something she would embrace and enjoy. But, her dissertation and research questions had yet to be refined.
And then, the pandemic happened. For Sachdeva, a second-year doctoral student without a dissertation, she had the added challenge of being a mother of three (the third baby born during 2021). Luckily, Sachdeva refused to take time off, and was able to build in routines that helped her connect to neighbours and academic peers alike.
And then, while in the middle of her independent reading and research course (IRR) with Associate Professor Jim Hewitt, she was inspired by her now dissertation co-supervisor to take her understanding of microlearning further. “Him and I decided he wanted to bring in a little bit more of the science of learning to the discussion,” she remembers.
As a result, she produced several short videos about micro learning as a part of her IRR. And then those videos were getting recognition from educators and researchers around the world. One educator in the Czech Republic provided Sachdeva with time-stamped translations for close captioning in five different languages including Czech, Romanian, Polish, Italian and Slovak.
“Those videos and the process I went through creating them just generated thinking [on the subject] and created the seed. And I can see the plants coming out of my research – that ended up becoming [my dissertation],” said Dr. Sachdeva.
The exposure from her work opened up doors for her – co-teaching a new course, as a teaching assistant, with Professor Hewitt, and creating “midweek microlessons” that better help students connect with the coursework. Applying evidence-informed theories of instruction from cognitive science, the micro lessons intend to help students understand how learning happens and encourage interactions with fellow students. “Because when they understand the content, then they can talk to someone else about it,” explained Dr. Sachdeva. “That increases interaction between learners too. And it has to start with the learner’s interaction with the content.”
It's quite the journey, a growth that many of her observers admire and praise her for. “I think Nidhi has shown the kinds of growth I have seen amongst my best Doctoral students,” said Dr. Brett, “developing a deep engagement with the subject matter through copious amounts of reading and discussion, cycles of writing individual chapters that deepen with every draft, and a growing sense of understanding the many ways ones writing has to adapt to the requirements of this very specific kind of long and detailed research document.”
Like many of our OISE students in this department, Dr. Brett says, Sachdeva approached her work through the lenses of both research and teaching – through each phase of the development and execution of the study. “It was also a pleasure to see how much the experience of developing and participating in this study brought engagement and satisfaction to both the faculty member teaching the iterations of her course, and the student participants who were very clear about the value of the micro-learning experiences so carefully designed by Nidhi in collaboration with the faculty member.”
The end of a doctoral journey, the beginning of another
Dr. Sachdeva’s April 2023 defense for her thesis “Designing Evidence-Informed Microlearning for Graduate-Level Online Courses” was one of, if not the first, in-person defense in the OISE building since the pandemic began.
There was all around appreciation that this journey would be concluded in-person – and when Dr. Brett let Dr. Sachdeva know she successfully defended her thesis, it became more surreal.
“I was like, wow, ‘It’s actually done,’” she recalls, sharing tears with Dr. Brett. “Another person who was working that day on the eighth floor at OISE came by and said, ‘I’ve been here so many years, and for the last few years, you’re the only person that I’ve seen come out of that room, going inside as Nidhi and coming out as a doctor.’”
Preparations for the 3MT and in-person defense are just the beginning for this burgeoning expert on microlearning and the science of learning. Recently, Dr. Sachdeva has been collaborating with Dr. Steve Joordens – a U of T professor of psychology – to create videos as part of a series on microlearning. She has founded her own company called Microlearning Consulting, which is regularly consulted[NS1] on microlearning matters, currently consulting for Mytonomy, a company considered a leader in supporting patient literacy via video-based microlearning.
In May, Dr. Sachdeva delivered a keynote titled “Take the Load Off” at the EdTech workshop organized by the Faculty of Applied Sciences and Engineering – where she shared her own journey of coming to U of T as an international student back in 2007 and feeling emotionally and cognitively overloaded, especially during her initial years in Canada.
She called it the “invisible load” and said that all students come to school with some form of load invisible to others. But it’s there and it’s real, impacting their learning. She spoke about the crucial role educators can play in lowering their students’ cognitive load by simply paying attention to how they design instruction aligning with how the human brain learns.
“We may or may not be able to take away the external load of our students, that does impact their learning. But one area where we can show we care is how we design instruction by paying attention to the cognitive load while teaching”, Dr. Sachdeva said, in her keynote.
Dr. Brett says that she has a bright future ahead. “I think Nidhi has all the skills and competencies for her to have whatever impact she feels she wants to aim for,” she says. “Her work on microlearning will expand and take many potential directions depending on the opportunities she encounters, and I have no doubt that she will continue to be a successful and happy researcher, teacher and Mom moving forward!”
Thankful for her peers, and her husband and children, whatever comes next will count. “My family comes first but when I am not with them, I stay focused and give my work my all. I make sure that the time I spend away from my kids truly counts,” said the doctoral grad, her heart full.