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Learning Loss and Unfinished Learning: Bridging the Gap

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Confidence | Student Engagement | Student Success | Teaching Hacks | Teaching Methods | Teaching Trends | Whole Student Support
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Paul Coats is a Senior Lecturer in the Department of Spanish and Portuguese at Indiana University


Many students experience learning loss after prolonged breaks in their learning path, whether due to holidays, course scheduling, extreme weather events, or global pandemics. It is a challenge that behooves both the student and the instructor to step up in their own ways, particularly in courses that build on the content and concepts learned in previous classes. But the question is, when students are missing some of the basic building blocks needed for success in a course, how can we as educators bridge the gap?

The Student Perspective

An instructor needs only to put themselves in the shoes of their previous life as a student. Imagine jumping into an intermediate Spanish class after having spent three years without so much as practicing your “¡Hola!” Think about entering the second semester of organic chemistry after returning from a summer-long trip volunteering in Haiti. How about discovering that your high school pre-calculus class did not in fact prepare you for your college-level calculus class? The prospect is disheartening, if not utterly frightening.

Students, when faced with such an outlook, do not expect to have any help. Rather, they anticipate anything from an initial learning curve to a semester-long struggle in which they must go it alone. As best they can, they use what little materials remain from the last class they took on the subject. The idea that their instructor might assist in guiding their review would be an unexpected and welcomed offer.

Address Learning Loss. Where to Start?

Now that we have established the very real need that students have to review previous content, coupled with high levels of motivation and low expectations for assistance, one would be hard-pressed to find a more fertile ground for improvement. This need not be a daunting task for the instructor. Rather, it can be viewed as an area where the sky is the limit, but where a stepstool is appreciated.

Depending on the course structure and the topics being studied, the means and application of review will vary. The level of intervention is what first must be decided on, and this can be universally applied. Do you have time constraints in your course? An inflexible syllabus or schedule that cannot be modified, with every module already packed to the gills? Or do you simply not have the time to make major modifications yet?

Many instructors find themselves in such a situation. This does not preclude you from including helpful means of bridging the gap for your students. Below are a few things you can do to address learning loss and prepare your students for success, whether you have very little time or have a summer-long course development grant with time to spare.

Light but Effective

You know better than anyone else what students need to know before they can successfully traverse your course. Students, on the other hand, may consider a review which consists of reading over their old textbook from cover to cover, or memorizing their scrawled notes with little context. So, break it down for them to help make their review more efficient. Target the key concepts or skills needed as building blocks for the new content. This can be as simple as adding a list of page numbers to review before each module or concept. It is a task which takes very little work and can make all the difference to a student whose original go-to was to frantically leaf through a 2,000-page textbook and nearly as many pages of their own notes.

The slightly heavier version of this is to include materials to further direct students’ review of previous content. These can be pre-made from the publisher or from textbooks and sources that you have come across. These should be readily available and useful for preparing students. It is even more helpful to modify the review materials or create them from scratch. You can then connect them to specific materials in the current module, allowing for a seamless transition from old concepts to current content.

Full Integration

The most effective means of review is incorporating it into the curriculum rather than having it as an optional add-on. This, more than anything, effectively levels the playing field without calling anyone out for being behind or unprepared. At the same time, it increases efficiency by being timely. This helps students who never learned the basics to catch up. It also helps everyone else to refresh their memory and sharpen their skills by making additional connections between the old and new content.

In any learning path, whether in your LMS or a learning platform, it may be a simple task to add a brief review to the beginning of each module or add a separate review module before each new concept. It is also worthwhile to include checkpoints or activities which students must master before moving on to the new content. (Auto-graded activities with unlimited attempts would be ideal for this purpose.)

Again, if time allows, modifying or creating activities that seamlessly integrate with the new content is best. This includes integrating review of concepts into the lecture portion of the course to guide students explicitly in making these key connections. It also includes activities and checkpoints, as mentioned above. In this way, all students, whether well-prepared or experiencing a gap in their knowledge, will have the opportunity to see the big picture. It will help them effectively learn how the new content fits within the scheme of things, and how each skill or concept builds on the former.

Orient Students for Success

Keep in mind that the level of effectiveness of any of the above strategies also depends on how informed the students are in order to involve them in the process and increase their motivation and buy-in. Make explicit how the course is structured, what sort of support will be given, and the level of independent work that will be needed in order to be successful in the course. However, in order to foster and encourage a growth mindset, this should not single out students who may need additional help. Rather, show that success in the class is attainable for all students, no matter their background in the subject, provided they take advantage of the resources you offer.

Although the importance of personal support on the part of the instructor or team teaching the course cannot be underestimated (whether this is comprised of numerous teaching assistants giving small group instruction to students, or a single instructor meeting students in their office hours), the more time is spent on developing the course with an integrated review. The more built-in support and resources the students have access to, the less time will be needed for one-on-one remediation. Therefore, there is less burden on the instructor(s), while increasing the chance of success among their students.

If you want to learn how to identify signs of learning loss and implement strategies to support students’ progress, watch the recordings from our 2-part webinar today.

Part 1

Part 2