Learning during a pandemic: What decreased learning time in school means for student learning

One reflection of how much students have learned and developed since schools closed in March can be found in late Argentinian cartoonist Quino’s 2007 comic strip, in Manolito and his peers’ self-assessments of what they learned in school. When Manolito’s teacher asks, he replies: “From March to today, nothing.” (The implied message is: Others are learning, while he is stuck.)

Lavado, Joaquín Salvador, Quino. 2007. Toda Mafalda. Buenos Aires, Ediciones de la Flor.

As many parents and teachers have seen, these are the likely realities for students in 2020. Because learning time in school matters, and students’ learning and development tend to vary greatly even when schools operate in normal circumstances, challenges to learning were magnified when schools closed—due to prolonged cuts to learning time in school, the access to some “substitute” educational opportunities during the pandemic, and the many factors that influence out-of-school learning.

In this blog post, we review the consequences of reduced learning time in school settings during the pandemic, and what the evidence tells us to do about it when we begin to control the spread of the virus. (For a detailed review of the challenges COVID-19 brought to education and our policy recommendations, see “COVID-19 and student performance, equity, and U.S. education policy: Lessons from pre-pandemic research to inform relief, recovery, and rebuilding.”)

One initial finding is particularly clear: We should anticipate that the major disruptions to and shortening of learning time has impeded student learning. An easy benchmark estimate is that, on average, not having been able to complete the school year leads to an across-the-board loss in student performance on math and reading of at least 0.1 standard deviations (SD), likely larger in earlier grades. (Note that an effect size of 0.1 SD would be considered a moderate effect in education evaluation, even small for small-scale, targeted, model programs; however, because the (at least) one-third school-year-length reduction we are handling here affected all students, it would lead to a very sizable aggregate loss in performance.)

Overall, the causal link between amount and quality of instructional time in school and student performance is well established by research on the length of the school day and on school cancellations. And while the gains per additional hour or day may be modest, they point both to the possibility of regaining some lost ground by making up for these months and to the critical role of the quality of education received.

Other pandemic-relevant lessons are found in research about summer learning. Often interpreted as consistently pointing toward a “slide,” the most recent research is more focused on the large variation in summer learning among students, on showing that different students learn different things, and on the fact that some students experience gains while other lose in their academic performance. For example, a recent study finds that slightly over half of the students lose nearly all their school-year progress, but the rest of the students actually maintain their school-year learning. During the lockdowns, learning has likely varied a lot, making both the concept of average performance and the tools used to evaluate it—standardized tests—less meaningful or useful.

We also emphasize how important it is to understand the evidence from the chronic absenteeism research regarding students at serious risk of falling behind in school and even dropping out. This is a particular concern now, because the pandemic may act as a “revolving door” that ushers students at risk of dropping out away from school (the United Nations recently defined the risk of increased dropping out as a “generational catastrophe” that could have enormous repercussions in developing countries). The absenteeism research also points to a range of reasons for, and thus strategies needed to reduce, student absenteeism. In the current context, policymakers and practitioners need to address the root causes—academic disengagement, socioemotional distress, economic challenges, health problems, and others—and to target the relevant supports.

The advice from these bodies of research for recovery and rebuilding as schools reopen and we address these challenges is extremely rich and exceeds merely pointing to interrupted learning due to shortened learning time.

  • When decisions about extending the school day or year are made, it will be critical to ensure that instruction is of high quality. This means ensuring adequate intensity, including after-school activities, reducing class sizes, and having sufficient, highly credentialed staff who receive proper supports.
  • In addition, this evidence tells us that children learn very differently, which we will have to address by offering both more personalized instruction and the right targeted supports.
  • The evidence also indicates the importance of using the right assessments and the limitations of standardized tests, which reward a narrow set of skills and tend to be closely correlated with students’ socioeconomic background. Inappropriate use of the latter could overwhelm and mislabel children at a time when what they need are diagnostic and needs-based assessments that illuminate where they are across a range of domains and what they need going forward.
  • Finally, the research on chronic absenteeism reinforces the urgency of providing appropriate support to students who are least prepared and especially to those at risk of becoming disengaged and eventually dropping out.

This is the first blog post in our “Learning During the Pandemic” series. Over the next few months, we will be releasing more blog posts on various consequences of COVID-19 on students’ learning and development and on the actions needed to recover the lost ground and lift children up during and after the pandemic.