Is “learning loss” the right phrase?

Posted on 08-09-2020

This post can also be found on the No More Marking blog here.

Over the last few months we have heard a lot of worries about the potential ‘learning loss’ being incurred by students who have missed several months of school. What is meant by this phrase? Let’s think of a couple of scenarios.

Let’s suppose we administered a reading test to a large cohort of Year 6s just before lockdown, in March 2020, and again in September 2020 as they return to school.

Suppose they get a reading age of 11y0m in March 2020 and the same score again in September 2020. This would in one sense represent a loss of 6 months of learning, as we could have expected them to have averaged a score of 11y6m in September 2020. However, I suspect that most of us would probably think of this more in terms of stasis, or making no progress, rather than actual learning loss. We might still use the phrase learning loss to refer to the fact that the pupils have ‘lost out’ on several months of time in school.

Another possible scenario is that the group get a reading age of 11y0m in March 2020, and then get a lower reading age in September 2020 — let’s say 10y9m. In this case, it seems as though the group have actually gone backwards — that they are reading at a lower standard than they were 6 months ago. In this case we might be more inclined to think about a ‘learning loss’ of 3 months.

Clearly, neither situation is ideal. However, in both cases, I am not sure that learning loss is the right phrase. ‘Loss’ implies that there were some skills and knowledge students had which have now disappeared, and which therefore need to be regained from scratch. In fact, the evidence on this suggests that skills and knowledge aren’t totally lost in this way. They may become rusty and decay, but often they are not totally lost.

Consider this in the context of foreign language learning. I learnt French at secondary school 20 years ago, and I can recall very little of it now. If I were to start relearning it, I’d have to start in a beginners’ class. However, the evidence suggests I’d make faster progress than an equivalent student who had never learnt French in the past — or than if I tried to take up a completely new language I’d never studied before. So my school French has not been totally lost; rather, it’s decayed. Foreign language teachers recognise this distinction with the terms ‘absolute beginners’ and ‘false beginners’.

It may be that something similar has happened over lockdown. Initial assessments might show what looks like severe learning loss — but pupils may be able to make more rapid progress than normal to make up the loss. Perhaps student progress might look something like this (highly simplified) graph.

At No More Marking, this is something we are particularly interested in. Comparative Judgement is an assessment technique which is very well suited to measuring changes in learning over time. We have secondary and primary writing assessment projects which will shed a light on some of these questions, both now and throughout this year.

As well as this, we hope to provide some insights into the different aspects of writing students have or haven’t made progress in, and the best methods of improving students’ writing skills.

Our Baseline Secondary Writing project is closed for new entrants, but you can still sign up for Assessing Primary Writing here.

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