Bridging the Learning Gap: Strategies to Meet Students Where They Are

What does it mean for students to experience "learning loss"? In brief, learning loss refers to the idea that students' learning decays over time if students do not regularly engage with the practice of learning. Prior to the pandemic, learning loss was commonly discussed in the context of summer break -- many of us have often wondered, "How much of my students' learning in the Spring semester carries over to the Fall?" Research suggests that students' academic progress slows(link is external) over the relatively relaxed summer months. However, we also have evidence to suggest that students are able to relearn concepts and skills quickly, especially when their prior knowledge and experiences are used as a foundation for learning new knowledge (Kole and Healy 2007(link is external)Morris et al. 1981(link is external)).

COVID-19 has disrupted student learning and higher education in unprecedented ways. National survey research(link is external) reports that students are feeling less prepared, finding it harder to concentrate for extended periods of time, and are spending more time completing course assignments than previous years. These findings are particularly relevant to students from historically underrepresented and excluded communities. UC Berkeley's series of Student Pulse Surveys from Fall 2020 through Fall 2021(link is external) point to similar trends, and acknowledge the specific hurdles transfer students continue to experience as a result of pandemic learning.

Taken together, learning loss is likely one of many symptoms related to the unpredictable and stressful nature of pandemic learning, including distracting learning environments, unfamiliarity with remote learning, and few support structures designed to meet all of these ongoing student needs at once (and for an extended period of time). While we, as educators, are not able to resolve all of these challenges, we can support our students to reclaim and activiate their prior knowledge. Provided below are four evidence-based approaches designed to help you bridge the learning gap by meeting students where they are in their learning.

Design Self-Assessment Activities

Use metacognitive strategies to help students observe patterns in their learning and study practice. From these patterns, students can identify what is helping (or hindering) their learning.

Prioritize Depth Over Breadth

With many unexpected changes to our teaching contexts, consider prioritizing depth over breadth as a strategy for designing flexible and inclusive courses. Provided below is a non-exhaustive list of resources to help you design equitable learning experiences for your students.

  • Design flexible courses using CTL's Course Design Guide. This guide is designed to help you take a goal-oriented approach to course planning with opportunities to collect evidence of student learning throughout your course.
  • Read CTL's article on supporting your students' return to campus. Although written back in August 2021, many of the strategies are still relevant as students continue to navigate unexpected challenges to their learning.
  • Oftentimes perceptions of learning loss are symptomatic of inequitable learning experiences. Consider incorporating values affirmation and sense of belonging interventions into your course plans to support students who may feel out of place or excluded from your classroom, discipline, or higher education more broadly.

Revise Your Evaluation Tool

Evaluation tools are designed to communicate how students are expected to demonstrate their learning. Rubrics are used on both high- and low-stakes assignments, such as homework, in-class participation, research papers, and project work. Explore resources for (re)designing your evaluation tool.

Collect Student Feedback

Collect student feedback at strategic points in the semester to learn more about your students' needs and use this information to inform changes to your teaching practice and course plans while the semester is ongoing.