Redefining Interrupted Learning

April 22, 2021 Jean Sharp, Chief Academic Officer By Jean Sharp, Chief Academic Officer
Teenage boy studying with laptop at home

It was simply a tweet—a candid response to a session on the agenda for the Virtual Spring CUE 2021 Conference in March. Like so many articles, webinars, and conversations these days, the topic was learning loss, a concern that tops the list for many district leaders and educators after a year of disrupted learning. The tweet said, in part, “Really hope this session is about how to support students and not how to address the ‘learning loss’ from a year of pandemic learning.”

The comment gave me pause. And I wondered, as educators, are we thinking about learning from a student-centered perspective or are we attempting to address a problem absent of those who are most impacted: our students?

To begin, let me be clear. I favor the term unfinished learning rather than learning loss. Many of our students were not able to “finish” the learning they began due in large part to a year of interrupted schooling. Despite the challenges, perhaps we can agree that:

  • Learning is a process of acquiring knowledge and skills through experience, study, or instruction.
  • While learning looked different this past year, students continued to learn.
  • The role of educators is to support students’ learning growth and development to help all students reach their full learning potential.

If these statements generally resonate with you, then let’s reframe the conversation. To move education forward, we must put students at the center of learning and redefine the learning experience with our students. Please note that the use of the word “with” rather than “for” is both intentional and important.

How do we tackle unfinished learning with our students? Here are some ideas for your consideration.


Meet students where they are.

This past year, students missed out on many educational opportunities, often through no fault of their own. School closures, access to technology and reliable connectivity, and a host of other factors that interrupted learning, meant students weren’t able to get to all the learning they needed.

As students return to the classroom, each will bring a different level of readiness to tackle grade-level expectations. How do we keep students progressing towards those grade-level goals?

Reengaging students in learning requires us know what students need—not collectively, but individually. Focusing on what we can do to help them move forward will contribute to a more proactive approach to unfinished learning. After all, the only way to change the past is to make positive choices that impact the future.

To assess and confirm students’ academic readiness, leverage technology to measure what each student is ready to learn. Develop an individual learning plan, tailoring instruction to meet the needs of the student. By developing a personalized pathway for each student to progress toward grade-level proficiency, we ensure that they are working on what they need to know and do. When learning is purposeful, relevant, and accessible, students are more engaged in the learning.


Encourage students to set goals and monitor their progress.

Digital learning allows all students to progress through a course of study at their own pace—moving faster through concepts and skills they have already mastered while spending more time on those that they are still learning. It is important to have students set SMART goals each week to measure their progress against their learning plan. SMART goals help students develop the discipline to set goals that are specific, measurable, actionable, relevant, and timebound. The also afford a sense of progress and accomplishment as students reach incremental goals on a weekly basis.

For unfinished learning, you may consider a mastery-based learning model. 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 often set the mastery level you expect students to attain to demonstrate learning.

Digital curriculum provides student dashboards, which offer evidence of student competencies and progress. Meeting with students on a weekly basis to review progress against goals, driven with data, and led by the student brings both transparency and accountability to student progress.


Go slow to go fast.

When students return to school, we can anticipate that some of the “habits of learning” they practiced and applied in the past may be … well, rusty. Reengaging in learning requires thinking beyond the purely academic needs of students to supporting their development as learners. In other words, we need to invest in helping students “learn how to learn.” After all, reentry can be hard.

While teachers support students with academic knowledge, they must also be learning coaches, helping students learn how to do all kinds of things—take notes, effectively prepare for a quiz or test, manage their time, and more—to take ownership of their learning. While coaching for learning and academics takes time, the return on this investment is worth it when you lean into what matters for each student. Setting a foundation for effective learning is highly transferable from one learning task to another. And each small win, each success, builds upon the other until students begin to believe in themselves as learners.


Equip students with strategies to persist, to overcome obstacles, and to build resilience.

Social-emotional learning has been emerging as one of the top concerns among educators over the past several years. And recent events have only heightened the concern for the health and well-being of our students.

Equipping students with social-emotional skills—in areas like self-awareness, self-management, responsible decision-making, relationship skills and social awareness—gives students strategies for coping, managing, and dealing with feelings and emotions and responding in more productive and positive ways. Further, social-emotional learning equips students with successful strategies for learning and life, among them, understanding how their decision-making impacts their future, what steps they can take to overcome obstacles, and how hard work is key to achieving their goals.

Schools are prioritizing social-emotional learning as a key component to support the needs of students. More than two decades of research make clear that students perform better academically when their social-emotional needs are met. Make a commitment to support the needs of the whole child, knowing that when we do, we strengthen schools and create stronger communities, which leads to brighter futures and a more equitable world.


Celebrate successes, even the small steps.

We’ve agreed that learning is a process and that while learning looked different this past year, students continued to learn. If you’re still in agreement, then I encourage you to:

  • Believe your students can learn.
  • Provide high-quality, standards-driven courses that engage them with grade-level content.
  • Set expectations for mastery and successful strategies for meeting that expectation.
  • Encourage students to stretch beyond what they believe they can do.
  • Give them hope.
  • Prepare them for the next—the next day, the next course, the next step following graduation.


We believe our students have a future, and we must continue to prepare them for one that holds bright promise as they strive to reach their full learning potential.

Let’s reframe the conversation and put students at the center of learning. We can make school a place where students are welcomed and acknowledged, where learning is focused and relevant, where instructional approaches consider the specific needs of each student, and where we encourage students and prepare them for next. Our students need school to be a place where opportunity thrives.

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