Learning Loss Persists Even After Schools Reopen

Pandemic-related school closures had a major impact on student learning in Asia and the Pacific. Photo: ADB
Pandemic-related school closures had a major impact on student learning in Asia and the Pacific. Photo: ADB

By Albert Park, Rhea Molato Gayares

Student monitoring and remedial programs are needed to avoid the long-term effects of school closures in Asia and the Pacific during the pandemic.

Students in Asia and the Pacific suffered serious learning setbacks due to school closures during the pandemic. The re-opening of schools only partially addressed the issue.

Our research found that one year of school closure during the COVID-19 pandemic resulted in the loss of more than a year’s worth of learning as children forgot previous lessons and missed out on new ones. When schools reopened, learning loss from one year of closure was reduced to half a year’s worth of learning.

We found that significant learning recovery occurs in the first few months of reopening. This may reflect opportunities for catch-up learning as well as the adoption of effective remediation strategies. Our findings come from a systematic review of 56 studies in 36 countries that looked at test scores.

Developing countries, where learning poverty was greater prior to the pandemic, were a particular focus of our work. School closures generally lasted longer, and education systems were less prepared for disruptions. Schools in developing countries were closed, on average, for twice as long as those in developed countries. Thus, learners in developing countries faced twice as much learning loss.

Primary level students were hit harder than students at the secondary level. This is not surprising because older children have acquired better coping mechanisms and younger children are more susceptible to damaging effects of crises. Unfortunately, this means that  younger children are less likely to achieve their full potential unless their learning loss is recovered.

Our research found that one year of school closure during the COVID-19 pandemic resulted in the loss of more than a year’s worth of learning as children forgot previous lessons and missed out on new ones.

Learning in mathematics and science subjects was affected more severely than reading and language subjects. This suggests that math and science learning depends more on in-school instruction and that alternative forms of delivering math and science lessons may have been less effective.

 Strategies to recover learning loss matter more now that schools have returned to in-person instruction. The most effective measures are those that deliver lessons specifically tailored to each student’s learning level. This makes a lot of sense because students were exposed to different learning experiences at home while schools were closed so learning levels varied greatly among students when they returned to school.

 Innovative ways of teaching at the student’s level have surfaced in response to the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic. One is telementoring or remote tutoring delivered via calls or short message services (SMS) sent to basic mobile phones. It typically consists of weekly SMSs containing simple assessments and lessons and a 15- to 30-minute individual tutorial delivered by either a teacher or volunteer via phone calls.

This approach showed promising results across many developing countries including Bangladesh, Botswana, India, Kenya, Nepal, the Philippines, and Uganda. Its low-cost, high-access features make it particularly suitable for developing countries with poorer internet access.

Evidence of successful catch-up learning was also found for an after-school remedial program in Tamil Nadu, India, in which volunteers teach small groups of children in remedial centers shortly after schools have reopened.

Tutoring has been consistently shown to be effective—whether in-person or delivered remotely. This underscores the benefits of understanding individual students’ current learning level and delivering lessons that meet them where they are.

Apart from individual tutoring, tailored instruction can also be delivered by regrouping classes based on learning levels or dividing each class into smaller groups according to learning levels, then deploying teaching assistants to each group. EdTech also can be used to quickly measure learning outcomes and adapt lessons based on these assessment results.

The road to learning loss recovery starts with reopening but does not end there. It involves deliberate, targeted efforts that continue to monitor the progress of individual students and employ effective approaches to remediate student learning to avoid long-term scarring effects of the pandemic.