Learning Loss during COVID-19: Impact and Recommendations

Disruptions, ever-changing covid policies, and the adoption of flexible learning methods characterized education in the pandemic. After a year and a half of distance learning, research uncovers that both teachers and students have observed substantial academic learning loss. In this article, we look to examine the impact of learning loss on a global scale across grade levels and foreground explanations as well as recommended solutions accordingly.

Learning Loss during COVID-19: Impact and Recommendations

Global academic learning loss due to covid

In a policy brief published in August 2020, United Nations reported that “The COVID-19 pandemic has created the largest disruption of education systems in history, affecting nearly 1.6 billion learners in more than 190 countries and all continents.” A year later, staying in line with pandemic prevention and control policies in different regions, some systems have decided to bring children back to school for in-person instruction, while others still began the new school year remotely.

Horace Mann Educators Corporation survey
Horace Mann Educators Corporation survey

In February and March 2021, Horace Mann Educators Corporation surveyed 941 U.S. educators, including public school K-12 teachers, administrators, and support personnel, to explore the impact of the pandemic on academic learning. More than 97% educators reported that their students had experienced some academic losses in the past year compared to children in previous years.

Outside the US, a survey of teachers from seven leading OECD countries and China found that students are on average two months behind as of early November 2020. In the meantime, it is important to bear in mind that countries surveyed have fared relatively well – McKinsey & Company pointed out that data are harder to come by in many low- and middle-income countries, where learning loss could be much more significant.

Covid-induced learning loss has exacerbated existing educational disparities

While learners around the world have all experienced covid-induced academic learning loss to a certain degree, students of traditionally disadvantaged groups face greater challenges catching up with school work. For one, it is hard to overlook glaring socioeconomic divides among countries – UN reported that 40% of the poorest countries failed to support at-risk students during the COVID-19 crisis.

Even in the same country, the US for instance, Black, Latino and Native American students' achievement typically declined more than that of white and Asian students at the elementary level. In addition, students in high-poverty schools also witnessed greater declines than students in more affluent schools. As schools gradually shift back to normal operations, McKinsey & Company noted that Black and Hispanic students are still more likely to remain distance learners and less likely to have access to the prerequisites for learning – devices, Internet access, and live contact with teachers.

“It’s not that the pattern is necessarily out of what I would have expected, it’s just like — oh my gosh, we’re going to have to really work hard to provide resources to these students to help them catch up,” Megan Kuhfeld, Senior Research Scientist of the NWEA, told Chalkbeat.

“It’s not that the pattern is necessarily out of what I would have expected, it’s just like — oh my gosh, we’re going to have to really work hard to provide resources to these students to help them catch up,” Megan Kuhfeld, Senior Research Scientist of the NWEA, told Chalkbeat.

Education of all degree levels and programs is affected

For K-12 education, as many as 40 million children worldwide missed out on early childhood development during critical years, which requires a stimulating and enriching environment, learning opportunities, and social interaction activities. Moreover, a set of widely cited data published by McKinsey & Company pointed out that on average, the pandemic left K12 students five months behind in mathematics and four months behind in reading.

Students were behind

In technical and vocational education and training (TVET) systems, the disruption had made it difficult to implement apprenticeship schemes and work-based learning modes, due to the low levels of digitalization and long-standing structural weaknesses.

In higher education, online learning is usually achieved through recorded lectures and online platforms. Due to the lack of information technology (IT) infrastructure for both students and faculties, some courses have not been successfully implemented online. Surveying 424 higher education institutions in 109 countries and regions, International Association of Universities found that teaching and learning at almost all schools have been affected, and nearly 80% of respondents believe the pandemic will impact enrollment numbers of the next academic year.

From educators to the system: what can be done?

Reflecting on large-scale academic learning loss, educators and organizations foregrounded recommendations on how collaborative efforts on different levels can be implemented to combat learning loss.

Indra Charismiadj speaking at the “Learning Loss”: Tackling with Collaborative Solutions webinar on September 3rd
Indra Charismiadj speaking at the “Learning Loss”: Tackling with Collaborative Solutions webinar on September 3rd

At the webinar jointly held by Gredu and ClassIn, Indra Charismiadji, Education Observer and Practitioner in Indonesia, shared some concrete actions to take for educators. Charismiadji primed the discussion with a reminder that learning loss did not occur entirely because of distance learning or the absence of face-to-face learning. Instead, it is often caused by teaching methods that are merely transferred “as it is” to online learning without adjustments, which eventually causes students to quickly feel bored and less enthusiastic. Specifically, Charismiadji put forward three aspects to consider when it comes to dealing with learning loss.

  • First, he encouraged “a growth mindset”, a form of thinking that grows and evolves from time to time. For instance, online learning in the midst of this pandemic has actually accelerated the pace at which educators and students are coping with the digital age.

  • Second, educators need to understand Socio-Technical Knowledge Management in the digital era, which consists of Infoculture, Infostructure, and Infrastructure. Infoculture is the transfer of information in the digital era; infostructure relates to institutional identity matters in cyberspace, and Infrastructure refers to the devices used in the digital learning process.

  • Finally, educators need to begin implementing modern classrooms or flipped classrooms, which combine asynchronous and synchronous aspects effectively. One can utilize Learning Management System (LMS) applications in the asynchronous stage and encourage high-level reasoning or HOTS (Higher Order Thinking Skills) by means of project-based learning during the synchronous stage.

On a systematic level, United Nations recommended that governments and stakeholders should initiate policy responses, starting with thorough plans for controlling virus transmissions and reopening schools. Speaking directly to changes to education systems, UN urged protection of education financing, construction of more resilient education systems, and reimagination of what teaching and learning could look like.

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