Preparing to Teach After 16 Months of Disruption

Image of 6 pencils in a row on a blue background. Five of the pencils are long and sharpened, but the third pencil in the row is short and has a broken tip.

Our previous posts this week have been mostly pragmatic–helping you put the finishing touches on your syllabi, your Canvas page, and your new teaching wardrobe. Today’s post will be a bit longer, reflecting on a particularly thorny pedagogical challenge that may exist regardless of whether public health conditions get dramatically better or worse this year.

In particular, I want to address a concern I’ve heard from many of you related to our students’ potential “learning loss” after multiple semesters of pandemic learning. What should we expect in terms of their preparation for the coming semester and, more importantly, how might we adjust our teaching to account for what these students may need?

Are We Asking The Right Question?

A lot has been written about learning loss in education over the last few months. In fact, so much has been written that some are beginning to wonder whether the concern is doing more harm than good. These educators and activists raise legitimate concerns about using deficit language to frame our students’ challenges. They also worry that surfacing these deficits might stigmatize those who have fallen behind through no fault of their own.

I tend to agree that the degree of moral panic we are witnessing, particularly concerning K-12 learning loss, is unwarranted. As many have rightly pointed out, we are in the midst of a global pandemic. Students are only “behind” if we decide to hold them to the same standards as those who have not experienced such disruption. But why must we do so? If we’re putting an asterisk next to 2020 and 2021 in most data sets, why not accept caveats for student learning in this period, as well?

Despite this recognition, there are good reasons some of us should be concerned about what our students have and have not learned over the last 16 months. Those of us walking into classrooms on Monday have made certain assumptions about what our students know. If the students who walk into our classrooms are different from the students we expect, our carefully designed courses may fall flat. If we want to create meaningful learning experiences for our students, we must understand how the pandemic has changed our students and in what ways.

What Does The Evidence Suggest?

While some have simply assumed our students will be behind, it’s worth asking whether there is any evidence to support this conclusion. Perhaps, as with many moral panics, this is much ado about nothing, and the kids are actually alright. So what do we actually know?

Indirect Evidence

First, we know that many students and teachers seem to believe there has been a significant degree of learning loss. In a survey of  K-12 educators in February and March, 53% reported a significant loss of learning, and another 44% reported some loss of learning. Only 3% of instructors surveyed thought there was no learning loss. Likewise, in a recent survey of incoming first-year college students, almost 60% had high expectations of academic difficulty this year.

But what of Wake Forest students and faculty? Our students were more confident, but not without concern. A full 38% of undergraduate respondents were worried about being “behind in their learning (compared to peers and teachers’ expectations).” Yet, interestingly, only 12% of our faculty reported similar worries about student learning.

As I’ll note below, the mere fact that students believe they are behind can significantly affect their learning in our courses. But do we have any evidence that their perceptions are accurate? Perhaps our faculty–those closest to student learning over the last year–are on to something. Maybe our students learned far more than they realize.

Direct Evidence

Unsurprisingly, there is much more direct evidence of learning gains and losses at the K-12 level (where they regularly assess learning via standardized measures). And the news there is not good. The most commonly cited data is from a McKinsey report that draws on assessment data from 1.6 million elementary students across 40 states. Here we learn that, compared to students at the same grade level in previous years, today’s elementary students are 5 months behind in math and 4 months behind in reading.

Looking at the data more closely, two patterns stand out. First, historically excluded populations were hardest hit. Students at majority-Black schools were behind in math by six months, and students at low-income schools were behind in math by seven months. Second, the learning loss did not occur at a uniform rate. Most of the loss happened during the initial shock of the shift to remote teaching in the Spring of 2020. Students began to grow again at the start of this year, but the growth was simply slower than a normal year.

 

McKinsey chart showing learning loss in math over time with a dip in the spring and then growth, but at a slower rate than in previous years.

 

Another commonly cited study from the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences finds that elementary students in the Netherlands lost about one-fifth of a school year of learning in math, spelling, and reading compared to students’ progress in the previous three years. And, just as with the McKinsey data, the losses were not equally distributed among student populations. For example, students from households with the lowest categories of parental education suffered losses 40% greater than the average.

 

 

On the higher ed side, the data is harder to find. Inside Higher Ed released the wonderful podcast above where they also happen to interview our WSSU colleague, Ereka R. Williams. But the most interesting data I could find was a small study in Economic Letters from the spring of 2020. The authors compared performance during the pandemic semester (back when it was just one semester!) to performance in prior semesters across 9 sections at 4 institutions. As with the K-12 data, this study found that, on average, learning across all sections declined by .2 standard deviations (i.e., 60% of the pandemic class was below the average of previous semesters).

What I loved the most about this study, however, was that they found that the differences across semesters were largely attributable to teachers rather than student demographics or the context of the pandemic. More specifically, students who had instructors with less experience teaching online were more likely to have lower scores. Nevertheless, and not unrelatedly, those who had instructors who knew how to integrate active learning into their online courses were less likely to have lower scores.

My Best Guess

If it’s not already obvious, higher education does not have a ton of great data about how our students are doing academically. However, we know that many of them feel worried and that this will have real implications for their self-efficacy, which will, in turn, shape their ability to learn.

Beyond that, we can deduce from what they’ve shared about their motivation and mental health over the last year that they may not have been at their best as learners. I think most of us know that we may not have been at our best as teachers, as well. So it is certainly plausible to think they may have learned less than students in previous semesters.

There is also a reason I went ahead and shared all the data about elementary school students in the US and abroad. While American college students are certainly distinct from Dutch 3rd graders, the process of teaching and learning is similar enough across the human species that we should expect to see at least some effects we see in the more robust K-12 data. And to the extent we do observe learning loss, I suspect it will look somewhat similar to the K-12 data. That is, there were likely significant drops in the spring of 2020, and then students probably began to learn again, but at a slightly slower pace. Perhaps more importantly, I expect that we will also see differential impacts across our student body, with historically excluded populations struggling more than those who had extra privileges over the last 16 months.

Recommendations

The first thing to say about learning loss is that many of the most effective solutions are structural. Responding to systematic learning loss requires a systematic response in additional tutoring, supplemental instruction, and curriculum redesign. And at Wake Forest, we are fortunate to have the Center for Learning, Access, and Student Success (The office formerly known as the LAC!) and numerous other academic support centers to help students regain their footing. Likewise, no one knows more about the process of curriculum (re)design than Dr. Anita McCauley. She is eager to help your department think through any adjustments that may be necessary if you discover student pathways have been disrupted.

While this support is wonderful, there is still much we can and should do as instructors.

First, given how little firm data we have about where our students are, I recommend beginning your semester by taking the time to collect the evidence necessary to make that assessment. This may mean giving students a survey asking them to share how prepared they feel and how confident they are they will be able to do well in the course. But it should also mean several early, ungraded assignments that check for prior knowledge.

Take stock of what you expect students to be able to do when they enter your classroom and develop an informal assessment. If you’re teaching in a sequence, consider asking the instructor of the prior course to share their (typical) exam and use that (but, again, don’t grade it!). And if you teach different material throughout the semester, keep these informal classroom assessment techniques in place. These strategies are a great idea every semester, as students rarely know all we think they know, but they are particularly essential this year.

If you find that your students are anxious about doing well, make sure to structure your course and assignments to build their self-efficacy. When students have low self-efficacy, they need to see themselves succeed at challenging but attainable goals. So instead of beginning with the most difficult material to “weed them out,” begin with more manageable material and work your way up. And if your students find your prior knowledge test overwhelming, it will be important to share with them that you were trying to push them beyond their current abilities and that you are confident they will be able to do well on that exam with enough practice.

But what if you’ve discovered that students are two units behind where you expected them to be? Should you forge ahead and hope they will catch up with assistance from CLASS or other academic support offices?

If I have one piece of advice about learning loss this semester, it is this: we do our best teaching, and students do their best learning, when we meet them where they are. While we could continue to cover what we had planned to cover before we met our students, covering 100% of the material does not matter much if no one actually learns it.  If you cut your content in half and students only learn 60% of it, students are still learning 30% more than they would have if you covered all 100% with no actual learning.

To be clear, I am not arguing you should radically redesign your course if you discover your students are not where you expected them to be. Instead, my main suggestions are simple: slow down. Practice more. Cover less. There is indeed a sense in which my “cover less” recommendation is a form of kicking the can down the road. Isn’t the fact that we all covered less last year what got us into this mess in the first place? Perhaps. But do we have another choice as individual instructors? The best we can do is identify the problem early on, share it with our colleagues, and hope we can work together to develop some of the structural, curricular solutions discussed above.

It is also possible, and maybe even likely, that your students are doing just fine, and you only need to convince them that this is so. But if you find them struggling, do your best to remember the last 16 months and find a way to meet them. Wherever they are.

 

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