As many institutions of higher education (IHEs) prepare to welcome students back to campus for the first time since March 2020, administrators, faculty, and staff are grappling with how to help their institutions return to ‘normal.’ Two challenges in particular present roadblocks for student success in higher education: learning loss during the pandemic and the transformation of the learning environment.
Learning loss is referred to as the “general loss of knowledge and skills or the reversals in academic progress, most commonly due to extended gaps or discontinuities in a student’s education.” Generally, learning loss is measured in the K-8 grade levels and relies on standardized tests to measure the level of learning loss due to summer vacations, known as summer melt. The shift to remote, hybrid, and/or distance learning due to the COVID-19 pandemic has caused parents, educators, and experts to question how much learning loss has occurred since March 2020, not only in K-8 but also across the entire education continuum.
As IHEs prepare to open their campuses this fall, one major consideration is how to support students who may have experienced learning loss. A recent study estimated that K-12 students are likely to lose five to nine months of learning by the end of the school year, with Black, Hispanic, and Indigenous students losing six to 12 months. While learning loss has dramatic implications for the K-12 system, it places additional pressure on institutions of higher education to ensure that faculty are supporting students and addressing gaps in students’ foundational education.
Although students don’t generally enter college with such high levels of learning loss, many students do enter college academically unprepared. One study from 2017 estimated that 96 percent of IHEs enroll students who require remedial courses, with higher populations of academically underprepared students enrolling at two-year institutions. Academically underprepared students are generally at greater risk for stopping or dropping out, and have a longer time to graduation, which results in an estimated additional $7 billion a year in educational costs. As many IHEs approach the opening of the 2021 academic year, to ensure student success, institutions need to address the influx of students who are academically unprepared and experienced learning loss during the pandemic.
Invest in Postsecondary Transitions: The transition to higher education is critical for a student’s future success and the COVID-19 pandemic has made it difficult for students to receive the support for the transition to higher education that is traditionally available in other years. Advocacy groups are calling on IHEs to utilize their short-term federal stimulus funds to expand support, including efforts that focus on postsecondary mentoring programs, advising, and summer bridge programs, as well as expanding efforts at the K-12 level, including FAFSA completion and dual-enrollment.
Leverage Technology to Measure Student Success: It is likely that most incoming first-year students will have experienced some levels of learning loss, but experts are saying students who do not have at-home resources, such as parents who finished high school or parents/guardians who encourage engagement in education, will be most impacted. Durham Technical Community College says that it plans to rely heavily on its early alert infrastructure to ensure students are successful this year. If a student is not progressing as they should, faculty and staff at the institution will be alerted, providing the opportunity for an intervention to help the student rather than resulting in the student stopping out, dropping out, or failing the class.
Rethink Traditional Remedial Coursework: Traditional remedial courses generally do not count for credit and can increase a student’s time to graduation, grow the cost of education, and impact retention due to stigmatization. Instead, IHEs should consider creating a standard course and adding a mandatory component to increase class time, such as office hours, tutoring, or classroom time. Texas community colleges adopted this type of remediation and found that it increased a student’s likelihood of completing their first college-level English course in one year by 24 percent.
The COVID-19 pandemic transformed the educational landscape at a rapid pace, requiring students at IHEs to move to distanced, online, or hybrid models. Although many faculty, staff, and students reported being unsatisfied with the change in March of 2020, many feel there are benefits to remote learning that should be adopted permanently. While individuals want to keep components of remote learning, most IHEs have announced returning to in-person coursework this fall without options for online coursework.
While there have been many reports on the downside to virtual learning, including a decline in student engagement and widening of the digital divide, many students and faculty see benefits to online learning, even if it is included as an option rather than the only option. In a report from April 2021, over half of students and faculty were more optimistic about online learning and hybrid courses.
For students, many found that online learning was more accessible, especially for adult learners who traditionally commuted to campus after work or for areas where transportation is a barrier for students to get to class consistently. Another benefit for students was the availability of virtual student services, allowing students to gain access to counseling, advising, and other services without stepping foot on campus. From the perspective of some faculty members, online learning required students to engage more, allowed students to have some flexibility, relieved students of textbook costs through online resources, and provided updated course content due to transitioning the curriculum online. Faculty also reported having more opportunities for professional development for digital learning and general assistance for designing their courses, either from instructional designers or teaching and learning centers.
Provide Ample Professional Development for Faculty and Staff: One of the major benefits faculty reported to mandatory online teaching is that they were given additional resources to improve their course and curriculum. For many faculty, this assistance led to an increase in the use of evidence-based teaching practices, which are generally associated with greater student success. While many IHEs are returning to in-person courses this fall, they should continue increasing access to assistance for faculty to ensure that regardless of the course format, faculty feel supported in providing the best course possible for students.
Provide Continued Flexibility: Before the COVID-19 pandemic, institutions and faculty often did not provide flexibility to their coursework. One of the biggest benefits for both faculty and staff for online learning was the flexibility that it provided, such as the lack of physical location, recording lectures, and feeling more efficient. IHEs should reassess current policies to ensure that the same sense of flexibility is possible once returning on campus. For example, attendance policies could be re-evaluated to allow students to attend class via Zoom or watch a recording of the lecture, rather than having emergencies or illnesses act as a barrier to the student’s success.
Explore Hybrid Options Across Campus: Many students reported that having a virtual option for office hours, student support services, and courses was helpful to balance their schedules and conflicting priorities. However, 75 percent of students also reported they missed interacting with faculty and their peers. In order to best serve the diverse needs of their students, IHEs should explore providing hybrid options for students to ensure that students are able to be successful.