Learning Loss


The term 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. While learning loss can manifest in a wide variety of ways for a variety of reasons, the following are a few representative examples of widely recognized forms of learning loss:

  • Summer break: Perhaps the most commonly cited form is “summer learning loss,” which occurs when students take extended breaks in their education during the summer. Since most public schools typically take summer breaks that can last up to two or two-and-a-half months, summer learning loss is a fairly universal and well-documented issue in the United States. Consequently, schools may adopt a variety of strategies intended to mitigate the learning loss that occurs over summer breaks. If students are unprepared upon returning to school in the fall, for example, teachers may review content that was taught the previous year or schools may provide some students with additional instructional time or academic support. Districts and schools may also offer a variety of summer learning programs designed to help students make up lost academic ground, provide greater educational continuity, or accelerate academic progress. Another common strategy is generally known as expanded learning time, which encompasses any attempt to improve learning acquisition, or reduce learning loss, by increasing the amount of time students are in school and receiving instruction from teachers. For a related discussion, see transition.
  • Interrupted formal education: Students may experience significant interruptions in their formal education for a wide variety of reasons. One of the most commonly cited examples is the learning loss experienced by recently immigrated refugee students who, often due to societal unrest in their home countries, have been unable to attend school for extended periods of time—in fact, in some cases these students may never have attended a formal school or may not have attended school for several years. The term “students with interrupted formal education,” or SIFE, is often used in reference to these students.
  • Returning dropouts: If a student returns to school after dropping out for an extended period of time, even multiple years, the student may have experienced significant learning loss or gaps in their education. In these cases, students may need to repeat previous grades, complete additional coursework, or accelerate their learning progress in other ways.
  • Senior year: The senior year of high school is often considered to be a potential source of learning loss. Since high schools commonly have course-credit requirements that allow students to satisfy the majority of their graduation requirements in advance of their senior year, many twelfth-grade students elect to take a reduced course load or leave school after half a day. If students complete their credit requirements in math during eleventh grade, for example, and they do not elect to take math class during twelfth grade, they could be at a disadvantage when taking placement tests or a math course during their first year of college (in fact, these students may be required to take a full-priced remedial math course that does not allow them to earn course credit and satisfy graduation requirements). In addition, some educators and reformers feel that senior-year learning loss represents a missed opportunity for students, and many schools have pursued strategies aimed at mitigating senior-year learning loss, including capstone projects, multifaceted assignments that serve as culminating academic and intellectual experiences for students, or increasing graduation requirements so that students need to take “four years” of math, English, science, and social studies. For related discussions, see core course of study and credit.
  • School absence: A prolonged health-related absence would be another potential source of learning loss, as would any family decision to remove students from school or discontinue their formal education. Another common form of absence is the school suspension or expulsion, which can lead to either minor or significant learning loss. In some cases, districts and schools have explored alternatives to suspensions and expulsions, reasoning that the denial of formal education may not the best way to address behavioral issues or help troubled students who may already be on the path to dropping out or worse, such as choosing criminal pursuits over completing their education and finding gainful employment.
  • Ineffective teaching: Lower-quality teaching can, in some cases, lead to slower academic progress, which produce learning losses in relation to other students or in terms of where students are expected to be at a specific stage in their education. For example, some studies have found evidence that highly effective teachers can teach students up to a year and a half (or more) of content in a single year, while other teachers may teach students only a half year of content over the course of a full year of school. If students receive poor-quality teaching over multiple years, learning losses can compound and grow more severe, decreasing the students’ chances of catching up with their peers or completing school.
  • Course scheduling: While relatively rare, school schedules—if they are not properly designed and coordinated—can lead to learning loss for some students. Perhaps the most commonly discussed examples are certain forms of block scheduling, which can create half-year or yearlong gaps in the continuity of instruction in some subjects, such as in mathematics or world language (most schools that use block scheduling, however, will typically takes steps to avoid such gaps).
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