How To Address Pandemic Learning Loss in Higher Education

Learning loss during the pandemic impacted students and institutions alike. Here's what your school can do about it.

Study after study confirms it: pandemic learning loss is real.

More research has focused on students in the K-12 sector than in the higher learning sector, but it’s clear that months of learning disruptions impacted college students. 

According to a survey conducted by Inside Higher Ed and College Pulse, college students learned less during the pandemic than they would have under normal circumstances. 

Amidst the abrupt shift to remote learning, many faculty members (despite their best efforts) weren’t able to teach very well. Students also dealt with social isolation, mental health issues, and ad hoc virtual learning environments. First-year students, who only had one semester of real college under their belts, experienced an upending of newly-established relationships with peers and their institutions. 

And when it came time to open college doors again, it wasn’t merely a return to normal: Many students just no longer could deal with the rigors of academic life. 

These struggles may have prompted some students to consider stopping their coursework altogether. By far, emotional stress was the number one reason students considered leaving college in 2021, according to a Gallup/Lumina Foundation report. But the proportion of students who cited challenging coursework as a problem was also significant: 34% of bachelor’s degree students and 24% of associate degree students considered leaving due to academic difficulties.

What Is Learning Loss?

According to the Glossary of Education Reform, learning loss refers to “any specific or general loss of knowledge and skills or to reversals in academic progress, most commonly due to extended gaps or discontinuities in a student’s education.” The term isn’t new – education leaders and instructors were dealing with the consequences of learning interruptions from summer breaks, illnesses, or temporary dropouts long before the pandemic hit.

But with pandemic learning loss, the effects of schooling interruptions are so widespread that many call it a national crisis, and those belonging to vulnerable groups were the hardest hit. 

According to the Center for Education Policy Research at Harvard University, students in high-poverty schools missed what amounts to 22 weeks of in-person math learning. In contrast, students from low-poverty schools that were similarly remote only missed the equivalent of 13 weeks. 

A Brookings study released in January 2022 echoes these findings. It found a “sizable drop” in average fall 2021 math scores from fall 2019 for students in grades 3 to 8. During the 2020-21 school year, test-score gaps between students in low-poverty and high-poverty schools widened by approximately 20% in math and 15% in reading. 

The impact on the K-12 sector has implications for higher learning leaders. As Susanna Loeb, director of the Annenberg Institute at Brown University, told The New York Times: “Student test scores, even starting in first, second and third grade, are really quite predictive of their success later in school, and their educational trajectories overall.” 

3 Tips To Help College Students Get Back on Track

Many policy experts, higher learning leaders, faculty, and staff have acknowledged that the effects of pandemic learning loss won’t go away on their own. Colleges have beefed up their academic and mental health support for struggling students and even waived SAT and ACT scores for incoming students who had an abnormal end-of-high-school experience.

During an Inside Higher Ed podcast, learning outcomes expert Natasha Jankowski advocated for meeting students where they are and shifting away from “gotcha” evaluations.

Indeed, when colleges nurture a culture of respect for the student as a whole person, they can create an environment where more students can get back on track and thrive. 

Thankfully, technology can augment these efforts. Below are three tips that higher learning leaders can use to turbocharge their approaches with the latest tech:

1. Reduce tutoring stigma with AI and scheduling apps.

One-on-one tutoring can be transformative for students who need more academic support, but sometimes the stigma of having to go to a tutoring center gets in the way. That’s why Missouri State has embedded tutors into specific classes.

Technology can also make students feel less self-conscious about getting help. A new AI tutoring platform developed by Google Cloud and Walden University, for example, uses machine learning and instructor assessments to generate personalized quizzes, assignments, and course recommendations. 

To help overcome the logistical hurdles of tutoring, Arkansas State University uses an app that lets students schedule tutoring sessions remotely in advance instead of relying on the awkwardness of walk-ins. This technology has resulted in connecting more students to the appropriate tutor and increasing the number of tutoring sessions.

2. Reinforce meta-skills with Universal Learning.

Learning loss can be so severe that students must acquire or regain meta-skills. In other words, they need to learn how to learn. Consider reading as a skill: in the higher education sector, it’s about helping students use advanced strategies so they can analyze the written word more effectively.

Writing support services can teach these skills. In turn, these abilities can be reinforced through a Universal Learning solution, which provides access to interactive digital textbooks, monographs, and courseware. 

A study performed by Green Shoots for BibliU revealed that students who were assigned four textbooks on the BibliU platform performed 12% better academically than students who did not use the platform. 

Additionally, the data suggests that using specific features (such as favorites tagging, referencing, highlighting, downloads, text-to-speech, and comments) helps further improve academic performance. This indicates that interactive digital textbooks can boost learning outcomes by helping students apply active learning approaches.

3. Intervene early with just-in-time feedback and data insights.

In higher education settings, it can be tricky to identify which students are struggling at the start of a course. By the time the first assignment or quiz is handed in, and the instructor can get a picture of academic performance, the student might already be too overwhelmed to get back on track. 

As a result, many higher learning leaders are focused on early intervention. Winston-Salem State University, for example, uses an early alert system to ensure struggling students stay on the radar. Another approach involves using apps like Socrative for just-in-time feedback about student comprehension. Data-generated insights presented via student analytics can also provide instructors with another way to identify at-risk students before key assessments

Addressing Pandemic Learning Loss: A “Better” Normal?

In one sense, addressing pandemic learning loss is about returning to basics. It’s forcing institutions and faculty to ask questions about the purpose of every lecture, assignment, or quiz. At the same time, institutions are moving forward with new digital tech, turbocharging best practices that help students get back on their feet. 

The situation is dire, but there is hope. With the right approach, higher education could even deliver a stronger and more equitable system.

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