Learning Loss: Employing Strategies that Foster Academic Growth

February 18, 2021 Jean Sharp, Chief Academic Officer By Jean Sharp, Chief Academic Officer
Student learning from a computer at home

It was March 27, 2020, and EdWeek was already foreshadowing the concern. The headline read, “Will Learning Gaps Deepen as Schools Stay Closed?” Most of us knew the answer. The longer schools were closed, the deeper the learning gaps would likely become.

Unfinished learning has been a main topic of research and discussion throughout the pandemic. Teachers already knew that students in their classrooms represented a range of readiness to meet grade-level expectations. For years, teachers have been adapting and differentiating their instruction to meet the needs of the students they serve. In many ways, this is a familiar problem. What’s different, however, is the anticipated scale of learning recovery needs.

By choosing strategies that help students progress toward grade-level expectations and by focusing on the academic growth of each student, we can address learning recovery. Let’s consider four proven strategies that can inform your implementation plans.


Meet Students Where They Are

The curriculum in schools is designed to ensure students are learning age-appropriate content. A learning progression—a purposeful sequence of teaching and learning expectations across multiple developmental stages, ages, and grade levels—maps out the specific sequence of knowledge and skills that students are expected to learn as they progress through their education.

Each grade level builds upon previous knowledge while preparing students for more challenging concepts and coursework at the next level. When unfinished learning is not addressed, students are simply not prepared to meet learning expectations at the next level.

In order to connect students with appropriate instruction, begin with an understanding of what each student is ready to learn—where they are. The academic needs of each student will differ, and standardized assessments are designed to measure their overall readiness by subject area and their growth over time. Consider leveraging technology to assess and confirm each student’s academic readiness and tailor instruction to meet their individual needs.

By creating an individualized learning plan for each student, you can provide a roadmap to progress toward grade-level expectations.

Individualizing student learning allows each student to work on what they need to know and do. The learning is relevant—and it affords early successes that the student can build on.


Employ Instructional Strategies that Make Content Accessible

Teachers can address learning recovery in several ways. One strategy is reteaching content from an earlier grade or assigning that content through a digital learning platform.

Rather than reteaching all missed content, consider giving priority to the essential skills. These serve as the building blocks for learning new content to establish foundational skills.

Another strategy is to keep learning materials at grade level and help students work up to that level. This approach, which some suggest is more effective than pulling students out of grade-level work, requires teachers to be intentional and purposeful about making grade-level content accessible to a wide range of learners.

Recognizing that students may need additional support to understand complex content, teachers should incorporate effective and proven strategies in their instruction. Supports and scaffolds—including vocabulary support, annotated reading, and strategies to activate prior knowledge or related information—all contribute to making grade-level content accessible to learners. And as students build skills and understanding, they will build confidence as learners. 


Consider Time, Support, and Investment

Pandemic-related learning recovery is emerging as a multi-year effort that will require time, support, and investment. Schools are already considering how to extend the school year to provide more time for those students who need to catch up academically. Plans are underway to launch summer school programs focusing on unfinished learning from the prior year and shoring up those prerequisite skills and concepts to ensure students are ready for grade-level expectations coming into the fall.

Some districts are starting the work of learning recovery now by supporting students with tutoring appointments, both in school and online, as well as Saturday tutoring where students can meet with teachers to get additional help with their schoolwork. Others are anticipating the need for “high-dosage” tutoring for students who have fallen the furthest behind—an initiative that would require staffing devoted to both the academic and social-emotional learning needs of students.

Addressing learning recovery will require a financial investment. Research conducted by Education Resource Strategies, a nonprofit consulting firm that works with districts on financial issues, projects the cost to schools could range from $12,000 to $13,500 per student over the next five years, or roughly $2,500 per student per year.


Measure Student Outcomes and Academic Growth

Tracking students’ progress and intentionally measuring growth against goals is another area where teachers may be called upon to adapt and incorporate new strategies.

  • Have students set SMART goals each week to measure their progress against their learning recovery plan. This offers an opportunity to keep the work specific, measurable, actionable, relevant, and timebound. It also affords a sense of progress and accomplishment as students reach incremental goals on a weekly basis.
  • Consider a mastery-based learning model for unfinished learning. Mastery is more important than completion alone. While completion indicates that the student has done the work, mastery signals their level of understanding or the quality of the work that has been completed. If you are using a digital curriculum, you can set the mastery level you expect students to attain in order to demonstrate learning.
  • If students will be held accountable for demonstrating mastery of the standards, consider standards-based grading or reporting. This approach will provide evidence of student competencies and support teachers in monitoring student progress.


While some recent reports that suggest declines in student performance weren’t as steep as predicted, many educators are uncertain. Teachers know that the students who are most impacted by school closures didn’t even take the tests that would determine where they stand academically.

We should anticipate and plan to address learning recovery. Employing the strategies that best support the needs of your students will help ensure every student is prepared to meet grade-level expectations.

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