Among many other educational problems raised by the COVID-19 pandemic is unfinished learning, learning gaps for students who didn’t fully cover all the material necessary to advance in grade but who find themselves at the higher level, nonetheless.
How to address these gaps is, perhaps, a more complicated issue than one would expect, since barriers exist to learning recovery processes. According to a survey performed by data analytics firm YouGov for Khan Academy that assessed 639 nationally representative teachers, 70% of respondents said “student behavioral issues” were a problem for learning recovery, while 57% cited “student mental health” as a challenge. Clearly, whatever behavior and mental health issues that existed before COVID, compounded by issues the pandemic raises, need to be addressed before their students can make academic progress.
Another barrier to addressing unfinished learning is teachers’ finite time. Sixty-one percent of respondents said there are “too many demands on my time,” 53% said there’s “not enough flexibility or time in the school year to pause and address issues,” 41% said there was a “lack of time in the school day,” and 38% said there was a “lack of planning time.”
But according to the survey, and reported in Education Week, even with all these hindrances, more than 90% of teachers found that during the 2021-22 school year, they were able to at least identify the learning gaps that need to be addressed among their students. And 59% said their students mastered the content they needed to during that time.
The most helpful method to address learning gaps is “working individually with students during class,” according to 78% of those surveyed. Classroom assessment came a close second at 74%, asking students questions in class also came to 74%, and student classwork/homework trailed at a still high 70%.
Teachers also said the most important changes in school to catch-up lagging students don’t directly deal with academics. Commonly cited were the need for more emotional and behavioral support and increased family engagement, as well as less rigid district pacing guidelines and consistent small group instruction.
An overwhelming majority (84%) of teachers believe mastery learning can help address unfinished learning, but only a small majority (53%) actually use mastery learning in their classrooms. Mastery learning means understanding which skills a student has or has not mastered; providing relevant feedback not just on what the student got wrong, but also the why; offering the student as many opportunities as needed to demonstrate their mastery; and continuing to provide instruction until the student masters a skill.
Most teachers want to increase the amount of feedback they give to their students, as feedback provides the structure to allow the student to better master the skill. One method of feedback is grading.
While 84% of teachers use the traditional letter grading system, 66% agree that a standards-based grading system would be better. A standards-based system breaks the subject down into smaller learning targets and grades the students based on their mastery of each of those targets.
Many feel that Ds and Fs on a student’s report card causes them to lose motivation, and fully half of respondents said that Ds and Fs discourage students from putting in the work to catch up. Close to three-quarters of teachers believe that letter grades should be accompanied by behavioral feedback, which teaches students important life skills and produces more solid results.
As we’ve said, addressing unfinished learning is a complex, but not a hopeless, process. With more input from teachers, guidance counselors, school psychologists, parents, and students, surely we can find a way of shoring up our students’ educational gaps and allowing them to move up to the next grade level fully prepared.
 Langreo, Lauraine. (July 26, 2022). “What Teachers Say Is the Biggest Barrier to Learning Recovery.” Retrieved from https://www.edweek.org/leadership/what-teachers-say-is-the-biggest-barrier-to-learning-recovery/2022/07?utm_source=nl&utm_medium=eml&utm_campaign=cm&M=4817930&UUID=b3fade9a2f68f6087f77f1f471976f89.