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Several STEM-focused institutions from Cluster 12 held a discussion in early 2022 about learning loss among freshmen and sophomores who started at their institutions during the pandemic. The institutions shared concerns about students’ academic readiness and ways to better support their success.

Academic Setbacks

Participants in the discussion observed weaker performance of students who just graduated from high school; they are less prepared for college than earlier cohorts.

  • Learning loss. Scores are down on placement exams, indicating students were behind academically when they graduated high school. Many students essentially missed out on two years of middle or high school.
  • Grading. Data suggest that grades were awarded in more arbitrary ways during the pandemic, with some high school teachers giving high grades and others low grades for no clear reason. In some cases, there could be changes to how the university is awarding grades for first-year students.
  • Expectations. Students seem more surprised now than in the past by the amount of work that is expected in college. Academic coaches report many students seem to lack ownership of their education. Compared to prior semesters, students seem to have an external locus of control, attributing their struggles to COVID, the high school, or faculty member. Students display less willingness to work through challenges and are withdrawing in increasing numbers.
  • Inequity. Underrepresented students of color seem to have suffered more from learning loss . This will negatively affect equity outcomes and gaps. Participants discussed how to measure the impact of programs they are implementing to address equity gaps, since universities were already struggling to deliver equitable outcomes for students of color before the pandemic.

Student Needs

Institutions are still discussing how to best address learning loss and are engaging academic affairs, student affairs, institutional research, and admission/enrollment in conversations. Institutions are beginning to address concerns, including the following:

  • Academic supports. At one institution, peer academic coaches are struggling to know when they should refer students to counseling. The institution is also seeing high demand for academic services such as tutoring and supplemental instruction. The counseling center is serving record numbers of students and has added resources.
  • Financial aid. In addition to academic challenges, students are experiencing greater financial stress. Participants suggested that institutions assess whether their current scholarship model meets students’ needs.
  • Mental health. Students are seeking a sense of belonging on campus through group connection and social engagement and are in greater need of psychological counseling than in the past.


Call for discussion:

In addition to the above concerns, participants shared that high school GPA has become a weaker predictor of student success due to changes in grading at the high school level during the pandemic. Test scores are a more reliable predictor of student success than GPA, however an alternative measure is needed now that many institutions have shifted to being test-optional for admissions.

Please join the discussion and share how the pandemic has impacted your incoming students’ academic preparedness and related policies and supports:

  • Have you observed learning loss among incoming students at your institution? What supports is your institution providing to help students adjust?
  • Has your institution gone test optional for admissions? Do you find high school GPA to be a weaker predictor of student performance than it has been in the past? What alternative predictors are you using or considering, if any?
  • Has student success changed pre-/post-pandemic? Are the number of withdrawals and failing grades in courses increasing? What supports has your institution put in place to help increase student success and close equity gaps?

Further reading: Rodriguez-Planas, N. (2022). COVID-19, College Academic Performance, and the Flexible Grading Policy: A Longitudinal Analysis. Journal of Public Economics.

Tags: Learning loss, Pandemic

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