Learning and the Pandemic

By Babette Moeller

There has been much media coverage recently about “learning loss” that has occurred during the pandemic. Such reports often reference studies that have attempted to predict or measure student performance in reading and mathematics using  common assessment instruments such as the NWEA Map Test (e.g., Kuhfeld et al., 2020) or iReady (Curriculum Associates, 2021). Findings show that, compared to previous school years, students perform lower on these assessments in both reading and mathematics. These studies also show that the most marginalized students are disproportionally affected, with drops in performance being greater for the lowest performing students, and for students attending schools that serve a majority of Black and Latinx students or schools in low-income zip codes. Such findings are clearly very disturbing. However, we need to be careful in how we talk about these findings, and how we use them to guide practice. This blog offers some thoughts about learning during the pandemic and offers some practical suggestions for how to act on them.

Describing students’ lower performance on assessments administered this year as “learning loss” is problematic. The use of the expression “learning loss” assigns blame to students for not performing as expected. However, more often than not, students haven’t mastered specific grade-level academic content because schooling was disrupted, and not because of any fault of their own. Students cannot lose what they have never learned! What students lost were opportunities for learning of academic content typically covered during a school year. There were multiple reasons for the lack of such opportunities, including experienced trauma, lack of access to computer hardware and internet connectivity, curricula that were not flexible enough to be adaptable to different face-to-face and remote learning contexts, the use of technologies (e.g., video conferencing programs) that were not specifically designed with education in mind, and teachers being put into roles (e.g., teaching online or in hybrid modes) that they had little preparation for and practice with.

The expression “learning loss” is misleading for another reason. Learning is a basic human activity that helps us make sense of the world. It is a life-long pursuit that happens not just in school, but also to a large extent outside of school. It does not stop or get lost during historic events such as epidemics, natural disasters, or other unexpected happenings, but rather it will be shaped by such events. Learning mathematics is no exception. As a well-established body of research (e.g., Nunes et al., 1993; Saxe, 1991; Scribner, 1986) has shown, children and adults who have experienced very little schooling can develop quite sophisticated mathematical understanding and skills that derive from their everyday activities, such as street vending, playing video games, sports, construction work, and shopping. Moreover, the mathematics that children learn in out-of-school contexts has been shown to be shaped by the specific activities they engage in, and their family and cultural contexts (e.g., Guberman, 2004). With the disruption of schooling during this past year, and the fallout from the pandemic and racial tensions, students’ learning has not been lost, but rather it has been much more varied than in previous years. What this means is that we cannot make assumptions about what understanding and skills a student brings to any given learning experience, and we have to work harder to understand individual students’ strengths and challenges so we can tailor instruction accordingly.

Perhaps most concerning is the fact that a narrative around “learning loss” may negatively impact students’ mindsets and subsequently their success in school. If children are told, or indirectly receive the message that they are deficient (perhaps in the way they are being tracked into groups), it may undermine their confidence in being able to succeed. Moreover, using the results from aggregated formative and summative assessments to make instructional decisions could be very harmful and may result in teachers lowering their expectations for students most affected by the pandemic. When we make instructional decisions as teachers and administrators, we need to take individual students’ strengths and challenges into account instead of relying on a students’ group membership (such as race, ethnicity, socio-economic status (SES), or disability status). For example, we cannot assume that just because a child is from a low SES household or has a disability that they will have larger learning gaps than other students.

Given that different students may be in very different places as a result of the disruption in schooling and the experiences they have had over the past year, what are the implications for practice?

Here are some suggestions for closing out the 2020–2021 school year:

  • Finish on a high note and celebrate the many accomplishments that students and teachers achieved.
  • Have students share stories about how they coped with COVID and celebrate their resilience.
  • Celebrate a technology skill that students or teachers have learned.
  • Acknowledge students’ and teachers’ persistence in the face of encountering an obstacle.
  • Encourage teachers to engage students in open-ended activities that allow them to discover what students know and are able to do, and to celebrate such discoveries. In mathematics you may want to utilize rich problems that we have described in previous blogs, or utilize routines such as Notice and Wonder that will give you insights into students’ unique ways  of thinking.

And as you plan for the next school year, keep the following in mind:

  • Do not assume that things will be fully “back to normal” next fall. Accept that recovery will require extra effort to familiarize students and staff with new routines, and that it will take time.
  • Provide students with access to grade-level content and address gaps if and where you discover them rather than focus solely on remediation.
  • Remember that productive struggle propels learning. Resist the temptation to take over and alleviate students’ struggles, as it may demotivate them over time.
  • Be mindful that in addition to addressing learning gaps, students also need emotional support to re-engage in learning. Do not focus on academic content at the expense of students’ social-emotional wellbeing.
  • Provide teachers with opportunities to build relationships with individual students and engage in informal assessment. This includes opportunities for teachers to spend one-on-one time with students.
  • Ask students and their families what they need. Help students to self-advocate and to ask for help when and where they need it.
  • Empower students to help each other and use peer tutoring as a strategy to provide extra support to students who may be struggling.
  • Provide teachers with professional learning opportunities and give them flexibility to adapt curricula to better meet individual students’ needs.

It is important to remind ourselves of the pervasiveness of learning. It will help us to maintain a positive outlook on our students and to nurture their confidence in themselves as learners.


Curriculum Associates (2021). What We’ve Learned About Unfinished Learning: Insights From Midyear Diagnostic Assessments. Research Brief. North Billerica, MA: Curriculum Associates.

Guberman, S. R. (2004). A comparative study of children’s out-of-school activities and arithmetical achievements. Journal for Research in Mathematics Education, 35(2), 117.

Kuhfeld, M., Tarasawa, B., Johnson, A., Ruzek, E., & Lewis, K. (2020). Learning during COVID-19: Initial findings on students’ reading and math achievement and growth. NWEA.

Nunes, T., Schliemann, A. D., & Carraher, D. W., (1993). Street Mathematics and School Mathematics. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Saxe, G. B. (1991). Culture and Cognitive Development: Studies in Mathematical Understanding. New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Scribner, S. (1986). Thinking in Action: Some Characteristics of Practical Thought. In: R. Sternberg and R. Wagner (eds.), Practical Intelligence Nature and Origins of Competence in the Everyday World, Cambridge University Press, New York,pp. 13-30.

The contents of this blog post were developed under a grant from the Department of Education. However, those contents do not necessarily represent the policy of the Department of Education, and you should not assume endorsement by the Federal Government.

This work is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 4.0  

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