Students lost 35% of learning during pandemic, may take ‘decade’ to catch up – study

by Chris Lange

Chris Lange, FISM News


Children lost out on more than one-third of a school year’s worth of learning during the COVID-19 pandemic, a deficit that has persisted, according to a recent analysis. 

The study, published in Nature Human Behaviour on 30 January, shows that school closures during the height of the global pandemic resulted in “one of the largest disruptions to learning in history,” which affected an estimated “95% of the world’s student population,” particularly in poorer countries.

Moreover, researchers found that even though schools have reopened, “school-aged children have not caught up on the loss of knowledge and skills that they experienced at the start of the pandemic, during which school closures were widespread.” The most pronounced education deficits are in mathematics, followed by reading.

“The effect of limited face-to-face instruction is compounded by the pandemic’s consequences for children’s out-of-school learning environment, as well as their mental and physical health,” the report states.

Through an analysis of nearly 6,000 peer-reviewed papers and studies published on the effects of the pandemic on education, the researchers concluded that, on average, school-age children across all grade levels lost 35% of a school year’s worth of learning during the pandemic. These learning gaps continued to persist as of May 2022 based upon data analysis.

“It is critical to understand the extent to which learning progress has changed since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic,” the researchers noted, adding that the term ‘learning deficit’ used in the report reflects not only gaps in “learning progress,” but also “a loss of skills and knowledge already gained.” 

The lack of variation in learning loss between varying age groups likely resulted from longer closures at the high school level, which the researchers theorize was largely based upon an assumption that middle and high school students would more easily adapt to distance learning than elementary students, according to the report.

“This is going to be a real problem for this generation that experienced the pandemic in school,” Bastian Betthäuser, an Oxford University sociologist and co-author of the study said, adding, “If not addressed, these learning losses will affect this generation’s success in the labor market.”

While school closures were cited as the overwhelming cause of learning loss, other influences compounded these deficits, including lack of access to computers, poor home working environments, and “economic insecurity” that arose during the pandemic.

The study revealed a persistent “substantial overall learning deficit” that has most profoundly impacted low-income countries, followed by middle-and-high-income nations, respectively.

“The pandemic reinforced learning inequality at the global level,” Betthäuser said.

The researchers concluded that “Policy initiatives to help children to recover lost learning and skills are urgently needed.”

Included in the report was a prescient warning attributed to Amanda Nietzel, a researcher at the John Hopkins School of Education in Baltimore, Maryland.

“This isn’t going to be something that we catch up in a year or two, when everything is back to normal — I think this is going to be a decade long,” she said.  “We need to rethink schooling and make substantial changes to the structure and way that we do education to make this up.”