Addressing Learning Loss in Higher Education

Professor assisting student using digital tablet in class

Published: December 2nd, 2021

Potential learning loss from this past school year has been at the center of discussion around schools, with concern expressed around students entering into higher education as well as for those returning to campus, who had previously been learning remotely. The question is: are students at the post-secondary level less academically prepared than previous semesters? If so, what can schools do to help address learning loss in higher education? Because the subject is most commonly studied at the K-8 levels, measured most often using standardized tests, it’s challenging to understand the true impact of the pandemic on higher education learners. Some education experts suspect that even if students are not demonstrating learning loss as we typically think about it, they are likely missing out on opportunities for growth and may be experiencing challenges differently.

For example, students who were seniors in high school during the pandemic and have now entered college or university, may need help with college preparedness in areas like time management, social skills, or study habits. What about the students who learned remotely in their first year of college and are now back on campus? These young students may need help navigating being away from their support system, learning new coping skills, and adapting to their current learning environment. Further, what about the students who have had their time in school be a hybrid mix between remote and in-person learning? They also will likely need guidance on how to navigate learning in their new classroom environment. One thing is clear as the new school year gets underway: students have experienced varying degrees of learning loss over the course of the coronavirus pandemic.

Colleges and universities may see higher interest in entry-level college courses versus prior years where those completing high school and passing AP courses have had the option to bypass these requirements. College educators should expect that they will have incoming students in their classrooms with what are likely new academic challenges as a result of the time spent completing high school remotely. However, because they spent so much time with distance learning, they may be better prepared in life skill areas like resiliency, time management, and technical expertise.

Overall, what do we really know about learning loss in higher education students? While the information is mostly anecdotal, there is evidence that they could have underdeveloped study habits, knowledge gaps in specific subjects, as well as challenges with performance in concentration. Research from the University of Colorado indicates that current higher education students may have completed core courses in high school without retaining much knowledge, putting them at a significant disadvantage when they have to continue their learning on the subject matter. While research is still being conducted and evolving across both the U.S. and globally in terms of the breadth of the issue, one thing remains the same, learning loss continues to be at the top of mind for most of us.

Explore Strategic Solutions

Many colleges and universities have been preparing for anticipated learning loss by offering resources such as tutoring, summer school programs to bridge the gap, and extended student orientation days. Colleges and universities must plan for students needing extra support and guidance. This can be offered in the form of tutoring and additional academic counseling support. Schools also may want to consider adopting a slower teaching pace if necessary, as it can help students rebuild in the areas of both social and academic skills.

Consider how you can utilize federal funding to enhance student resources that will work best for your institution. You could expand course offerings with the addition of one-credit courses taught by upper division students. First year students would be able to benefit from the support from their more senior peers on important, foundational courses. Similarly, you could consider offering more options for entry-level writing and math courses to support students who may have gaps in that learning. This will remove roadblocks that prevent students from being successful in continued coursework. As we explored with our blog on learning loss experienced among K-12 students, another recommendation for the allocation of federal funding is to hire additional tutors or supplemental instructors, whose work focuses on helping students with test prep and projects. These tutoring sessions could be offered in small groups or one-on-one, with flexible options for evenings and weekends and take place in residence halls or elsewhere on campus. Or, for those students living off campus that may also need support, in their own homes.

One more idea to consider for your institution: purchase new ergonomically designed and comfortable study furniture. Colleges and universities should make the time to closely monitor students’ progress, enabling them to more proactively prevent problems with students getting off track, whether that be a result of pandemic-related learning loss or not. Keeping a close eye on this can be tremendously helpful when needing to pivot teaching strategies.

Lindsay Daugherty, a senior policy researcher with RAND who specializes in education, said that “colleges and universities could consider reforming any remedial offerings to help students progress.” She recommends this as students can feel stigmatized or discouraged in remedial courses and not motivated to continue. Instead, schools should have “a standard set of courses in conjunction with mandated tutoring, office hours or additional classroom time to help fuel greater student success.” A recent study from Daugherty’s team that used an experimental model in community colleges in Texas, found that deploying these tactics to help learning loss resulted in a significantly increased likelihood of completion of subject course work.

Keep Mental Health in Mind

It’s imperative that higher education institutions also support students’ mental health and financial needs. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention are among the many institutions studying the mental health effects of young adults as a result of the pandemic. A report released in Spring 2021 highlighted why this area is so important. Some of the largest increases in serious mental health concerns were among the 18-29 age group, with approximately 57% of those surveyed reporting that they experienced mental health issues like depression and anxiety. Sadly, this number continues to grow and sound the alarm for colleges and universities nationwide.

Mental health challenges may be exacerbated for those students who are living far away from home for the first time, especially if they have formed tight knit bonds with family when they learned remotely for such an extended period. Students in higher education are just as likely to have heightened anxieties about being back in the classroom, especially first years who completed high school remotely and did not set foot on their college campus before classes started. These anxieties can be about anything and everything from how to relate to their peers and friends without a screen, to how to ask for help from their instructor, how to deal with stresses or frustrations, or even how to manage life on campus.

The importance of being patient and flexible in these times is crucial. Be prepared to pivot curriculum if you observe your students are distressed and overwhelmed. Acknowledge that their anxieties are not unusual and offer them support. Connect with them by sharing your own concerns, anxieties, and coping strategies. Normalize student’s feelings and destigmatize mental health counseling by encouraging those who need it.

If possible, work with on campus staff to offer flexible alternatives like virtual or text-based therapy or counseling sessions. Also consider providing discounted or free access or membership to wellness apps like Headspace or Calm and encourage the use of mindfulness or meditation practices. Tap into the student community by encouraging peer support groups. Not only do students have the ability to learn from peers in new and unique ways because they relate differently to them than they do to their instructors, but they also find comfort in knowing that they are not alone in their struggles and challenges, which helps address learning loss differently from a social-emotional perspective.

Make Learning Fun

One way to address learning loss that may be less stressful for students is to use teaching strategies that encourage recall. This can range from starting class with engaging questions, games, or activities in the beginning of the instruction period. This allows you to subtly remind students what they may have previously learned as well as to assess their progress. Alternatively, think about using unscored quizzes to help students determine true progress and identify areas of opportunity without the pressure of it affecting their grade. This can also help assuage stress or anxiety. If you’re ready to take things up a notch, consider adding gamification to any coursework. It has shown success with students of all ages and can help students with staying engaged and motivated throughout a course.

Award both social and emotional learning successes with incentives and rewards which can drive more active and creative participation. Encourage collaboration or sharing using smart edtech tools that make it easy to see and connect to shared devices in real time. Given that college or university students are well versed in technology, show them how easy technology makes staying connected and how they will directly benefit from it. Think about hosting a hack-a-thon style competition to fuel and encourage creative student-led solutions to problems that they may be facing, e.g. time management, social skills, health, and wellness.

Set up collaborative coaching or training sessions with other institutions or professional organizations so that professors and instructors can learn from their peers and industry colleagues. Be sure to select a resource that offers expert professional development courses to empower educators with support and training that can be customized to their unique needs. When possible, create an easy-to-use, dynamic online database with a dashboard of important resources and contact information. Allow students to help in the development of it. They are more likely to want to use it and share it with their friends if they are involved in the creation.

Level Up Your Edtech

Choose a comprehensive, flexible, edtech solution that will positively impact learning recovery and adapt to be future proofed over time. Promethean’s award-winning lesson delivery software and interactive smart panel displays were created to boost student engagement, increase efficiency of teaching staff, and improve academic successes overall. Promethean also offers educators extensive training, support, and professional development resources, which makes the process of deployment easier and far less stressful for the educator. Leverage available federal funding to purchase edtech that can change the game when it comes to successful Higher Education classrooms, fundamentally shifting the experience for students and instructors alike. Create a culture of belonging and contribution with an open dialogue about the integration of education technology, invite students and faculty to discuss and brainstorm together. Form a committee to ensure that there is accurate representation from different student groups and organizations on campus. For higher education institutions that have their students primarily learning remotely, find ways to build community and connection. Consider the creation of an online group or forum for both staff and students to participate in.

Get Inspired

Ready to learn more about how the power of education technology can supercharge your school? Check out our case studies to explore how schools like Northern Illinois University, Boston Architectural College, and UC Berkeley have successfully implemented Promethean technology into their classrooms to help propel students and educators forward, thereby keeping their fingers on the pulse of the latest, most dynamic technology, resulting in substantially improved educational outcomes and achievements.

Read the other blogs in the series:

Understanding Learning Loss

Accelerating K-12 Learning Recovery