Published: Sept. 1, 2021 By

Students and faculty are returning to campus this semester after a year and a half of educational disruptions and adaptations precipitated by the Covid-19 pandemic. Among the many concerns about how our students are faring, colleges and universities are thinking about learning loss. New students are joining us in person from a senior high school year spent online, and college sophomores who started at CU may have yet to set foot in a university classroom. Should we be worried about learning loss?

Learning loss has largely been a concern for K-12 education, and particularly for students who do not have opportunities over the summer months to practice concepts and skills learned in school. This phenomenon known as summer slide can result in lost gains in reading and math performance that teachers must address each fall. Reports of significant learning loss for K-12 students--especially for low-income and minority students--over the past year of mostly remote learning have been cause for dismay.

What do we know about learning loss for college students? It turns out that we don’t have much information, and what we do know is mostly anecdotal. There is some evidence that students entering their first or second year right now may have gaps in domain-specific subject knowledge, have underdeveloped study habits, or experience difficulty concentrating. It is likely that many students passed a class without having retained much of the material, putting them at a disadvantage as they advance in their coursework. 

Many colleges and universities have been preparing for anticipated learning loss by offering more academic support resources such as tutoring, summer bridge programs, and extended orientation days. CU Boulder offers academic support services for undergraduates, including tutoring, the Writing Center, Learning Assistants, and Counseling and Psychiatric Services

As teachers and mentors, what should we be doing to stem potential learning loss and help students become confident learners? A few thoughts:

Acknowledge anxieties about being back in the classroom. Second and third year students have been paying tuition and taking classes for a while now, but may not have experience with classroom norms and protocols. They may have anxieties about talking with another student or approaching their professor. Students may also feel nervous walking amongst the campus crowds or sitting in a classroom with other people. You can let students know that it’s normal to feel out of sorts right now. Be patient with the range of emotions students might express and be prepared to make changes to your lesson plans if students feel overwhelmed by the speed of instruction. Encourage students to seek support (like CAPS) if they continue to feel anxious.

Use teaching strategies to encourage recall. If students have been exposed to concepts in the past, there are ways to help them retrieve the memories of what they once learned. In Small Teaching: Everyday Lessons from the Science of Learning, James M. Lang offers some small strategies to encourage retrieval, such as opening class sessions with questions, activities, or learning checks. Use the first five minutes to “reactivate” what they have learned in previous lessons or courses. Use low-stakes or ungraded quizzes not for grading, but as a learning activity. They can be done collaboratively with other students, and/or as a game (my students go nuts over Kahoot). 

When introducing new material, try doing a concept-mapping exercise as a class or in small groups. Using this visual organizer, you can help students brainstorm everything they know about a subject. The exploration with other students can help them recall information they may have forgotten. 

Find out what students have been learning, and help them make connections. While the enforced social isolation of the past 18 months has been hard on young people at an important time for social development, it has also allowed many to try out new identities and explore their worlds in new ways--such as through increased social activism or deeper engagement with their families. When students are encouraged to make connections between their personal experiences and course material, they tend to take a greater interest in the course.

Lang tells us that when our brains take in new information and don’t have a place to hang it, we cannot yet make sense of the new information. We can help students identify what they already know and provide a framework to help them organize new knowledge. Try giving a pre-test before starting new content, or use a group writing assignment to explore what they already know about a subject. At the end of class, have students do a 3-2-1 activity: 3 things you learned, 2 things you found interesting, and 1 question you still have.

Slow down, give extended time on coursework, and check in often. Learning loss will show up in different ways for different students. Some will need brief tutorials to catch up, while others may need more supplementary materials or regular time with tutors or learning assistants. Lang suggests that learning takes time and we should be more thoughtful about spacing out lessons and assessments. We often believe that we have to “cover” all of the chapter or planned material, but when you see their eyes glaze over, it’s time to slow down. 

Finally, regular readers will know that I am a huge fan of getting regular feedback from students to see how they are doing and ask what support they need. Students are more likely to feel respected and engaged in their learning when they know their teachers care about their learning. Studies of learning loss in K-12 have also found that a strong student-teacher relationship can reduce stress and facilitate quicker recovery to get students back on track.


Lang, J. M. (2016). Small teaching: Everyday lessons from the science of teaching. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

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