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Should We Be Focusing On Learning Loss Or Unfinished Learning?

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Agree or disagree? People often rush to label things they do and do not understand. In the context of education, you’ve likely heard educators throw around terms such as learning loss and unfinished learning — especially in the wake of a global pandemic that flipped a school year and then some on its head.

At a high level, “learning loss” refers to the loss of skills or knowledge that can occur when someone experiences an educational break (e.g., summer vacation) or disruption (e.g., a rapid shift to distance learning due to COVID-19).

What isn’t talked about enough is how these educational terms can positively or negatively affect:

  • A student’s perception of their own learning journey
  • Your perception of your own teaching journey

Given the importance of using the most appropriate educational terminology possible, this article will explore learning loss and unfinished learning, the research behind them and what you can do to help both.

What is learning loss?

The educational term “learning loss” refers to the reversal of academic performance or loss of knowledge and skills, often as a result of external factors such as planned and unplanned school closures.

Many people associate learning loss specifically with summer learning loss. Some people believe learning loss isn’t real. Others favor the idea that learning loss is actually an equity issue. As you’ll see, there are different reasons for and types of learning loss.

1. Seasonal breaks

Vacations from school like summer break can lead to summer learning loss, the most commonly cited form of learning loss. On average, seasonal breaks last up to two-and-a-half months.

We’ll dive into existing research below, but a 1996 comprehensive summer learning loss review of 39 studies indicated that students’ achievement scores declined by one month’s worth of school year learning. This is why many families opt to put their children (usually high school students) in summer school or hire a math tutor.

2. Interruptions in education

There are many causes of educational interruptions, one of the most recent being global pandemic-related school closures.

While schools in North America continued in remote or hybrid learning environments, a lack of edtech devices, internet connection or parental involvement (due to, e.g., language barriers, working multiple jobs, etc.) meant the interruptions in education looked different for every student.

Children who’ve recently immigrated due to societal unrest likely have been away from a formal education setting which may halt and even reverse academic progress they’ve made to date.

3. Absences from school

Empty desks in an empty classroom over summer.

Whether students go to private schools or public schools, extended periods of time away from school for physical or mental health-related reasons can result in learning loss. Another common cause of learning loss is school suspensions or expulsions.

Whether or not you agree with that type of consequence is another topic. However, if it’s possible for a student to continue practicing what they’ve learned during their absence from school, we suggest they do.

4. Low-quality teaching

Sometimes, there are teachers in the education system whose teaching isn’t as effective as other teachers. This doesn’t necessarily mean that a teacher isn’t good at their job.

They could have, for example, a particularly challenging class or little to no sufficient professional development opportunities. On the other hand, not all teaching strategies work for every student. Whatever the reason, students can experience learning loss when they receive low-quality teaching.

Why is learning loss at the center of educational discussion now?

Since early 2020, learning loss has taken center stage in educational discussions due to the direct impact COVID-19 has had on teaching and learning.

Overnight, it seems, worldwide school closures forced students to rapidly shift from in-person learning to remote learning — at least for a time.

While these efforts have helped prevent the spread of the coronavirus and its variants, an April 2021 Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America (PNAS) study found evidence of learning loss linked to COVID-19 pandemic.

Even with favorable conditions including equitable school funding, world-leading rates of broadband access and a short lockdown, “students made little or no progress while learning from home.”

Many states and provinces have either reopened schools or are considering reopening for the 2021-2022 school year. And, as more and more students continue their learning journeys in a formal education setting, educators, families and researchers will likely develop more holistic views of any achievement gaps that exist.

But first, let’s take a look at the current state of learning loss research.

What research says about learning loss

Students do schoolwork to combat unfinished learning and address learning loss.

Educational researchers have been studying learning loss since as early as 1906. After more than a century of research (and growing), the scientific community’s learning loss findings remain mixed.

Earlier in this article, we cited a 39-study review of summer learning loss literature that explored the effects of summer vacation on achievement test scores. In it, researchers highlighted several findings, including that:

  1. Learning loss was greater for math than for reading
  2. The higher the grade level, the larger the extent of learning loss
  3. Students’ achievement scores declined over summer vacation by one month’s worth of school-year learning, on average

Although the meta-analysis didn’t moderate the effects for gender or race, researchers found that “middle-class students appeared to gain on grade-level equivalent reading recognition tests over summer while lower-class students lost on them.”

Two decades later, a 2016 Teachers College Press study analyzed data from more than half a million 2nd elementary to 9th grade high school students. One of the most significant findings was that, over the summer, students lost an average of 25 to 30 percent of their school year learning.

Moreover, data indicated that not only did Black and Latino students gain less during the school year; they also experienced sharper learning declines than their white peers.

A young girl wearing a mask reads a book in a classroom.

While it may seem like a safe assumption that, regardless of factors like ethnicity or gender, low-income students might learn and/or retain less than high-income students, the data do not support that hypothesis in every case. Context is key and inequities can vary vastly from family to family, community to community and country to country.

In a longitudinal 2016 Educational Researcher study, researchers analyzed racial and ethnic test score gaps, and socioeconomic seasonal trends. The data indicated two things:

  1. Socioeconomic status gaps in the summer only widened in some grades and subjects
  2. Overall, there was little evidence for overall summer learning loss after kindergarten and 1st grade.

A 2019 Sociological Science study asked the question: do test score gaps grow before, during or between the school years? Researchers echoed the findings above and concluded: “Evidence is inconsistent regarding whether gaps grow faster during school or during summer.”

Please understand that this is just a handful of the learning loss literature that currently exist. We suggest you dive deeper on your own time to further understand the implications learning loss might have, and how you can create a more equitable learning environment for your students or children.

Understanding unfinished learning

Unfinished learning is an educational term referring to concepts or skills in any subject that students were in the process of learning but unable to master, or never had the opportunity to learn.

The first part of “unfinished learning” implies that while student learning is incomplete, it will continue if it hasn’t already. In other words, learning and mastering new concepts is a matter of when, not if.

Compared to learning loss, unfinished learning carries a much more positive meaning — something that may even help encourage educators, students and families to approach learning gaps with optimism instead of fear.

The pandemic has negatively affected many people’s well-being, both young and old. You could argue that unfinished learning should be the term we use in educational discussions instead of learning loss.

Mother and daughter work at home on a computer to address summer learning loss and unfinished learning.

Here are a few reasons why:

  • Unequal access to technology — Regardless of rural or urban areas, low-end devices and insufficient internet connectivity shone an uncomfortable light on equity in education (or lack thereof).
  • School closures — Abrupt pauses in education meant whatever academic progress students were making would have to wait for varying periods of time. On top of that, some closures lasted longer than expected which meant many students’ formal learning was postponed.
  • Other factors that interrupt learning — Some examples include parents’ lack of involvement in their children’s education, unstable family environments and physical or mental illness.

Lots of factors can contribute to unfinished learning. But before we leave you with some actionable ways to help remedy learning loss and unfinished learning, let’s see what the research says about the latter.

What research says about unfinished learning

It’s important to acknowledge the fact that there isn’t as much research on unfinished learning as there is for learning loss. However, the pandemic’s impact on both in-person and online learning has led scientists and school districts to place a greater emphasis on unfinished learning research.

As the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, an organization that promotes educational excellence for every child in America, states:

“A growing body of evidence indicates that many students will enter the 2021–22 school year with a substantial amount of unfinished learning. The tendency of educators may be to use benchmark assessments to determine the extent of unfinished learning and then group those students according to how far below grade level they’ve fallen. While benchmark assessments can be helpful, evidence suggests that grouping struggling students in this manner is not the approach to use because it leads to them spending most of their time below-grade-level work.”

In previous years the extent of unfinished learning across subjects like English language, mathematics and science might have been manageable. However, the pandemic has undoubtedly heightened this reality in school systems around the world.

In a 2021 Curriculum Associates report, as of winter of the same year, unfinished learning is:

  • Greater in mathematics, particularly in elementary schools
  • Greater in reading, compared to other school years (especially for 1st to 3rd grade students)
  • Greater for students in schools located in lower-income zip codes than for students in higher-income zip codes
  • Greater in both reading and mathematics for students in schools serving Black and Latino students, compared to schools that serve a largely white student body

Remember: this is only one report from one company. We still require more research in order to make the most effective use of the time we have available as educators and parents or guardians. But it’s a helpful place to start.

How is unfinished learning different from learning loss?

Teacher in a classroom teaches students about numbers.

Unfinished learning and learning loss are two terms you’ve probably heard, or even used, interchangeably. And though similar, understanding their differences is important.

In the context of learning in the time of COVID-19, unfinished learning best captures the current state of education and what needs to happen for students to catch up to where they left off.

One of the main differences between the two terms is their connotations. Learning loss can discourage not only teachers but also students from seeing everything they’ve gained. On the other hand, unfinished learning implies that, although incomplete, a student’s learning journey is still in progress.

Students learn in a classroom as a teacher works to combat learning loss and unfinished learning.

You may have already seen examples of this educational narrative shifting your own learning environment. For example, instead of recovery, you can use renewal; instead of earning loss, you can use unfinished learning.

In addition to potentially having a positive impact on academic progress, using more positive language may help improve students’ mental health.

If you’re reading closely, there’s a pattern that reflects something we care deeply about at Prodigy Education — and that’s growth mindset. And thankfully, research has proven that a growth mindset improves achievement.

While these terms overlap, you can use the power of language to guide a child’s learning in a brighter direction.

What is being done to improve student learning?

A row of students sit on a bench in the classroom and raise their hands.

Fortunately, many families, educators and policymakers are working toward improving students’ learning in ways that are both ambitious and realistic.

School districts in particular are placing a big emphasis on accelerated learning in combination with, or in place of, remediation. Why? 

First, let’s look at an example of remediation that Sarah Tino, M.Ed., an education specialist at Prodigy Education, gave:

“When teachers use the remediation method, they place students at levels through conversations, observations and products, such as tests or diagnostic assessments. Once the teacher determines that specific students are not attaining grade level standards, they may then be placed in a small group for remediation where they return to master prerequisite skills. This helps boost student achievement. However, as students stay in small groups to master those skills, the rest of the class moves on without them resulting in some students not being able to catch up.”

In a discussion we had with Sarah on the topic of remediation versus acceleration, she highlighted recent studies showing that remediation is based on the misconception that for students to learn new information, they must go back and master everything they missed.

There are, in fact, some key benefits of accelerated learning that can improve student learning:

  • Acceleration strategically prepares students for success in the present, i.e., this week, on this content.
  • Rather than concentrating on all the skills or concepts students have failed to master, acceleration prepares students for new learning opportunities. Teachers address past concepts and skills, but always in the purposeful context of future learning.

Note: This doesn’t mean that teachers never teach pre-requisite skills; they simply address them when needed, in small groups or through mini-lessons.

A student and her teacher solving math problems on a classroom whiteboard.

On the flip side, the accelerated learning model isn’t perfect. Some educators are concerned that:

  • Teachers might have to frequently adjust their plans based on their individual learners and the curriculum content.
  • Accelerated learning may slow down at home if and when parents aren’t equipped to help teach things like foundational numeracy or literacy skills.
  • Acceleration may fail to benefit students entering key points of transition, e.g., foundational numeracy and literacy years, and in English language acquisition.

Yes, the coronavirus pandemic has widened the student achievement gap and made tangible student learning improvements hard to imagine. But families and educators alike can hope that accelerated learning and other efforts will close the gap sooner rather than later.

What can parents do to help with unfinished learning and learning loss?

Mother and child on a computer while sitting on a couch.

Below you will find some helpful examples of what you can do to help your child bounce back from unfinished learning and learning loss. You must understand, though: there are no silver bullets. Every child is different, as are their learning experiences.

1. Summer learning programs

Generally, there are two types of summer learning programs: school-based and home-based. Depending on the program of choice, costs could become a barrier for families, preventing their child from enrolling. Thankfully, there are organizations that offer free summer learning programs.

Scholastic, for example, offers one for Summer Reading and describes it as “a fun, free and safe program for kids.” Kids can attend weekly author events, track their summer reading streak to unlock digital experiences and help donate books by keeping reading streaks going!

You can also have your children join Camp Prodigy for the math adventure of the summer! Bring summer camp straight to your living room with fun virtual activities 
made just for your child. They'll love learning all summer with free, on-demand videos from our expert Prodigy camp counselors!

2. Game-based learning platforms

For some families, school breaks mean more screen time. If that’s the case, why not make it educational?

If math isn’t your child’s strongest subject, try Prodigy Math Game, a digital game-based learning platform.

Prodigy wizards team up to battle a Titan in Prodigy Math Game.

As your child — a young wizard! — progresses through fantastical worlds, Prodigy helps them fall in love with learning, earn rewards and battle friends, all while answering standard-aligned math questions.

One of the best parts, academically, is that the math game adapts in difficulty based on your child’s specific skill level. This way, they’re answering math questions that are not too easy but not too difficult, which keeps them motivated to keep learning.

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3. Targeted intensive tutoring

The Education Trust examined the research and found that, compared to other techniques, targeted intensive tutoring can be quite effective in helping students address unfinished learning.

Some of the features of targeted intensive tutoring that make it most effective include:

  • Younger students
  • A skill-building curriculum
  • Student: Tutor ratios of 1-2: 1
  • Tutors who are certified teachers

For online tutoring that fulfills the items above and your child will love, try Prodigy Math Tutoring!

A student attends a Prodigy tutoring session to combat unfinished learning and learning loss.

This tutoring service for 1st to 8th grade provides customized sessions tailored to your child’s exact learning progress. It’s aligned to your child’s curriculum, so they’ll dive into the exact skills they’re working on in school or in Prodigy Math Game!

Prodigy Math Tutoring offers flexible and safe 1:1 online math lessons from the comfort of home. Your child and their tutor — a certified teacher — work together through math problems by typing, drawing and manipulating shapes in an interactive online classroom.

The best part? Your first online session is free!

Request your free session today

4. Building strong relationships

All the learning interruptions children have endured since early 2020 also affected the relationships many of them had with their friends and teachers. For some, this has contributed to stress and anxiety. (Hence, many districts’ growing focus on social emotional learning activities.)

That’s why, when possible, helping your child build new or maintain existing relationships can go a long way. Whether it’s emails, texts, phone calls or messages through apps like Remind, try to keep any and all lines of communication open.

Research indicates that students from all ages and backgrounds benefit from strong relationships because they provide a foundation for:

  • Learning
  • Belonging
  • Engagement

If you’re not sure where to start, connect with your child’s teacher or school and they can guide you in the right direction.

Overcoming learning loss and unfinished learning

Now more than ever, the young people in our education systems need support — socially, emotionally, mentally, academically.

And while it requires a lot of time, effort and care, we hope this article about learning loss and unfinished learning will help the conversations and actions you take to support your children or students moving forward.

Prodigy Math Game is dedicated to making sure that every student has an engaging, adaptive math experience that encourages them to love learning. Students can go on adventures, earn rewards and play with friends, all while teachers and parents track and support their learning.

Sign up for your free parent or teacher account today to get started!

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