Colleges work to address students’ learning loss since COVID-19

Educators are working to support current and incoming college students left unprepared for college coursework after COVID-19 disrupted every level of the education system in 2020 and 2021, says The Hechinger Report. According to Kristin Patterson, an associate professor of instruction at University of Texas at Austin, the abrupt switch to remote instruction during the pandemic made it difficult for educators to assess student learning. Professors are now left “just assuming mastery when it may not exist,” Patterson says—and seeing an increasing number of students struggle to pass their courses. 

At UT Austin, around 20% of Patterson’s students failed her genetics class last fall, up from 2-4% typically. UT math professor Uri Treisman tells The Hechinger Report that the fall 2021 semester was his most difficult in his 50-year career. Twenty-five percent of his students failed last fall, compared to a prepandemic average of 5%. Treisman notes, however, that not all students were affected the same way. Financially stable families are “nervous about the futures of the children, and they’re investing heavily in ensuring their children have an advantage,” he says. “So, that nervousness requires that those who care about equity work much harder.”

How colleges are helping ‘the pandemic generation’

To reduce barriers to academic success, several colleges have initiated emergency academic policies and added programs to meet students’ academic needs. UT Austin temporarily implemented an expanded pass/fail policy for the 2020-21 semester, extending the option to include first-year students who ordinarily wouldn’t qualify.

Kansas State University is using a monitoring system to identify students who have missed assignments and received low grades so they can access additional academic resources. The City University of New York’s John Jay College of Criminal Justice has invited students with GPAs below 2.0 to join support groups led by social work interns. With more students receiving failing grades and low scores on math placement tests, the University of Maryland, Baltimore County has offered students new courses focused on time management and general study skills.

The effects of the pandemic have been inequitable, experts point out. Students of color and rural, first-generation, and low-income students—already historically underserved before COVID-19—are still suffering the most due to pandemic-related disruptions. If low-income students are unable to access services that fill learning gaps, the economic and achievement gap may worsen, says Ed Venit, a managing director at the education firm EAB. “That reverses the trend that we’ve been trying to do for 20 years in higher education.”

For Treisman, the pressure on students to keep up with college work despite the pandemic’s disruption means he must refocus their attention on their futures, not their past failures. Speaking about a section of his class composed primarily of students who failed his course the previous semester, he says, “I have to remind them, maybe put a little more energy into reminding them, that they’re really going to be leaders. That they will figure out how to do this.”

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