341. Learning Losses

The transition to remote instruction during the COVID19 pandemic resulted in dramatic learning losses. In this episode, Peace Bransberger joins us to discuss a report that analyzes the extent and persistence of these learning losses. She is the Interim Director, Programs and Evidence, Policy Analysis and Research, and Programs and Services at WICHE, the Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education.

Show Notes


John: The transition to remote instruction during the COVID19 pandemic resulted in dramatic learning losses. In this episode, we discuss a report that analyzes the extent and persistence of these learning losses.


John: Thanks for joining us for Tea for Teaching, an informal discussion of innovative and effective practices in teaching and learning.

Rebecca: This podcast series is hosted by John Kane, an economist…

John: …and Rebecca Mushtare, a graphic designer…

Rebecca: …and features guests doing important research and advocacy work to make higher education more inclusive and supportive of all learners.


John: Our guest today is Peace Bransberger. She is the Interim Director, Programs and Evidence, Policy Analysis and Research, and Programs and Services at WICHE, the Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education. Welcome, Peace.

Peace: Thank you.

Rebecca: Today’s teas are:… Peace, are you drinking tea today?

Peace: I have drank tea and I ended my tea drinking portion of my day with a Trader Joe’s maple espresso tea.

Rebecca: That sounds interesting.

John: I’ve had some of their teas, but I’ve never had that one.

Rebecca: It sounds energizing.

Peace: Yeah, it’s a black tea, has a bit of a smokish coffee kind of impact from the espresso.

Rebecca: Interesting. That’s a new one. I don’t think we’ve had that one yet.

John: No, we haven’t. [LAUGHTER] Well, I have an old one here, a spring cherry green tea in the hopes that we will see spring here. We had a lot of snow in the past week. We’re recording this, we should note, in late March.

Rebecca: I have a Lady Grey today.

John: The Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education is focused primarily on post-secondary education, yet you issued a report which is titled “Navigating Learning Loss and Changing Demographics in Education” in February of this year. Could you tell us a little bit about why you had this focus on learning losses in elementary and secondary education?

Peace: Well, so my organization goes by the acronym, WICHE, you had it correct. We’re a Higher Education Commission. And one of the things we’re known for on the research side of things, because we do a whole bunch of other things to support the 15 Western states and then outlying Pacific territories, higher education systems, and one of the types of research that we’re known for our projections of the number of high school graduates. It goes under the long-standing title of “Knocking at the College Door,” and the projection of the number of high school graduates so that state and institutional planners can strategize around overall student flow trends. We last issued the update to that 40 year ongoing research in 2020, when COVID was first raging, and we issue these projections roughly every four to five years. So we’re in a prep year right now. As part of my job, and being the lead on the network, I am always monitoring K-12 trends data. So we’ll have a heads up about whether something would be monumentally different in the space of high school graduation. And as a result of what I was seeing, we decided in February to issue the report, kind of a summary brief, because the data were compounding and resoundingly indicating that yes, something is currently different, and might continue to be different about high schoolers, and younger K-12 populations as a result of COVID. We’ll go into detail on the learning loss side of things, but from the perspective that we really typically focus on,the numbers of high school graduates, the major demographic trends, the reason that we felt we needed get out in front of what we were seeing is because the learning loss, we see from that the potential that enough children and teens may have been so impacted by the learning disruptions and things that a quantitative impact on the actual high school graduation trend is possible. And that’s important to know, because it’s a second layer on something that I think we all kind of have on our minds, some people will call it demographic cliff, we don’t use that term, even though our data are used to depict the slope, the trend line, it’s the coming downturn in the number of high school graduates, because back in 2008, fewer babies started being born. And to this day, there has not been an uptick in the rate of fertility in the United States and across virtually all of the states. We know this, in fact, it could be next year’s high school graduating class that might begin to evidence some of that trend. And so people are front and center thinking about that demographic change, I would suggest, [LAUGHTER] at a minimum is a contraction in the youth population. I don’t know if what that means necessarily for higher education contraction, but we can talk about is learning loss going to do anything to help that? Are we gonna somehow see actually more high school graduates than we might have otherwise expected given C OVID? Or is it more like what I think we’ve probably all been waiting and worrying about, could it impact that trend and deepen it, amplify the downturn in high school graduates?

Rebecca: So you talked a little bit about the data suggesting losses in persistence of learning? Can you talk a little bit about what those losses look like?

Peace: Sure. And, just for our purposes here, I’ll speak to the national kind of overall results and trends. But I would strongly encourage your listeners, even just as a starting point, to go to the web page that I’m sure we’ll put in the show notes where the report resides. And within that page, I’ve been adding to the list where people can access more detailed data than the national trends. I’d go there because then you can poke around, based on your own institution, and get a sense of the kind of school districts that you might know, school districts that are kind of geographic areas that are really strongly important to your student populations. Because the detail is really important. It’s a really multifaceted, nuanced topic. So about the persistence of the learning losses, and this is in the K-12 pipeline. I mean, technically, we work in grades one through 12 data because kindergarten is not a universal requirement, so it can be hard to know what’s going on there, since the trend data could vary year to year. When I mentioned prior to COVID, or pre-COVID, in the K-12 school system, that would typically mean either the 2019-20 school year, or some folks go back as far as 2018-19, because the 2019 school year included the spring that was disrupted, but by then most learning and assessments had already occurred, and then the quote unquote, post-pandemic assessments that we have availability to summarize go through the spring of 2023. So that’s almost a year ago at this point. But by spring of 2023 students started, after a couple of years that we’ll discuss here about what really happened there, students started showing some resumption in the rate of annual learning and acquisition that was typical pre-COVID. So that’s just like, on average, in a given year, the assessments generally will say how close to on-grade-level and then was the amount of typical acquisition achieved. By spring of 2023, the good news was that annual rates, there was some evidence that students were a little bit more closer to back on track. The unfortunate problem, and otherwise not good news, is that students were definitely not on pace during the two previous years. So they lost total learning, and it sort of accumulated. Students would have needed to learn at really unprecedented rates in 2022- 2023, that year, where they are resuming sort of a typical rate, just to make up for two years of lost learning, if that’s even such a thing in learning, which is an accumulative kind of process. There are spring of 2023 results, there are some more recent results from several of the major assessment products for the fall of 2023, so getting into the current school year, beginning of the current school year, and they generally confirm what spring 2023 results showed, that students came into the year with the overall lost learning. At this point, it means that these K-12 students… and we’ll give some statistics by different grade levels and what have you, the nuance, but pretty much from the assessment results, you see the same trend virtually at every grade level, which is that students have been moving along, learning in the given grade that they’re at, but they’re still being bogged down by overall unremedied learning losses. And that’s for four years now, so that’s pretty substantial. One sort of point of reference for those students who were high school freshmen, as COVID was raging, their time is up. So four years, did they get back on pace? Were they able to stay on pace, such as I’ve just described? They’re gonna graduate now, and many of them will graduate, but not having been able to fully recoup what was lost. And so there’s not a lot of data that actually sort of compare, “Okay, so I’ve received my diploma, it was awarded to me. What amount am I behind?” And I think that’s part of the problem. In fact, there is increasing attention to the notion that grade inflation, that has always been something of investigation, but evidence that it may have really been at play during these past four years in a way that is really masking and complicating this issue, not making it clear whether students who are graduating from high school, would they be considered on par with previous cohorts that were emerging even prior to COVID?

John: So basically what’s happening is students seem to be learning at the same pace they were pre-COVID, but they’ve all been left behind fairly substantially as a result of that transition to remote learning. And they haven’t caught up to where they would have been had we not gone to that experience.

Peace: Yeah.

John: Were those losses roughly the same everywhere, or were they particularly bad in lower income communities?

Peace: Well, let me give you first even just a sense of the scale of losses, and some of this, you almost have to see it to comprehend it, but I think I can kind of show the scale. So this is high school, stick with high school students, and so they’re the ones most immediate to our faculty might see. It was reported in October, the high school students’ scores on the ACT College Admissions Test had dropped to their lowest point in more than three decades. And that was describing therefore the class of 2023, some of which are presumably in college right now. And they were in their first year of high school when COVID hit. The average ACT composite score for U.S. students was 19.5 out of 36, for that class of 2023, which was down from the prior year 19.8, which we’re talking already that those were some score levels that might not have been ideal to begin with. For as regards to SAT, total score declined for the class of 2023 as well down to 1028 compared to 1050, for the class of 2022 and compared to 1060 for the class of 2021. So really, those are just a couple of data points about this notion that schools are graduating students but what that means when they’ve graduated could appear very different by the time they arrive to college. Now, it’s hard. Sometimes people might poke holes on those type of data because ACT and SAT are not taken by every single student. So the other thing I’ll point out is that we’re focusing on COVID impacts here. But it’s important to point out that in those two assessment instruments, ACT and SAT, scores had been falling prior to the pandemic. And so the pandemic just accelerated those declines, accelerated and amplified them. Since we work in the demographic space, on demographics research, I’ve been talking to other researchers about possible reasons for that pre-COVID decline trend, and just, frankly, how hard it is to reconcile with graduation rates that had continued to increase over the same years, and then the grade inflation, so we don’t have conclusive answers on that. But it’s worth noting, we’re talking COVID. The question might be for faculty and instructors is, do things feel particularly difficult with incoming freshmen at this point, in some way, shape, or form, and probably in very nuanced ways, depending on discipline. But then it’s also like, are they feeling pretty good, prior to COVID, were they where you want them to be anyway? So assessment results from elementary and middle school grades, the one that provides some of the most normed results, and therefore can be compared over time and as a universal sort of indicator, is the National Assessment of Educational Progress, or NAEP for short. They’re the thing that really caught my attention. We tried to highlight where the score drops for 13 year olds, they’re no more or less important than any other grade level, or school age. But those are the next in line coming through high school. So we’ve just seen what was going on with the high school age students during that period. Well, the NAEP 50th percentile mathematics score in 2022, was 282. In 2023, it was 274. That was at the 50th percentile, so an eight point decrease at the middle, the decrease on the already relatively higher scores at a 90th percentile was six point decrease. So even the highest percentile, 90th percentile, had a pretty dramatic decrease between those years. And at the 25th percentile, it was a 12-point score drop between 20 and 2023. NAEP reading score declines ranged between three point drops at the 90th percentile to six point drops at the 25th percentile between those years 2020 to 2023. And so there, it gets to the topic that I’ll provide a few more thoughts on about the variability. Were all students affected by this? Which ones more or less so? Right there, that was a statement of a twice as large score drop for those at the 25th percentile, compared to those at the 90th percentile. And this is already on the 90th percentile, they already being, perhaps at or above a proficiency level compared to a 25th percentile, which might not actually be at a proficiency level. And on top of that, you have a steep drop. It’s also worth noting, just like with the SATs, and the ACT scores, that the NAEP scores in that 2023 school year, were just an amplified continuation, some declines that were already emerging pre-COVID, such that in the composite reading score it had by 2023, it was the total average, so at the 50th percentile, seven points lower in 2023 than a decade prior. So over the course of a decade, it was already reducing, and then 14 points in mathematics. So some of these things that we’re talking about is, I don’t know if you want to say learning loss or just what the best word to say it is, because it’s nuanced, but they were approaching prior to the COVID period. And so I really want to highlight that because kind of just in am analogy, prior to the pandemic, schools and students are already losing historical ground. So they were already maybe not in the best shape, so to speak. And now they have to also recover from COVID. And so that can definitely explain some of the lack of recovery and a slow recovery.

John: Going back to the issue of SATs and ACT scores, you mentioned some complications. I’m guessing the major complication is that fewer people are taking the SATs and ACT since at many colleges scores became optional, and the people who are most likely to avoid taking it are those who might on average, expect to do less well on the SATs or ACTs, so that may suggest that the losses would be even greater if we had the same proportion of students taking the SATs and ACT tests as pre-COVID when a larger proportion of schools required them for admissions.

Peace: Yes, that is true. However, the 2023 SAT scores, the participation was the highest ever. So maybe the 2022 that could have been a somewhat more appropriate consideration. It remains the case. We don’t know the underlying distribution of the students necessarily, and if they change year over year in consequential sorts of ways. But I think you’re right. I’m really looking for some good news on this topic. So I can be something other than a Debbie Downer. But the truth is, I don’t think we can look at this and pick away at the data. We went out because it was like if you download the PDF, and you’re not convinced just like access the 30 different year points or different reference tests, and what have you, and see if you’re convinced that this has happened, it really has. It’s pretty affirmative at this point, we’d love to see it turn around, but I don’t think we can just ignore it.

Rebecca: I think it’s really helpful too to point out that it’s not just COVID, the fact that you’ve underscored that, and it might be exacerbated by COVID is really important, because there’s a lot of blaming of COVID on many experiences that we have in the classroom, that may or may not actually be the cause.

Peace: I’d argue they are the cause of what’s seen with the past four years, but we can’t just pretend that that because it was so consequential over those time periods that even a return to normal would be where we want to be.

Rebecca: Oh, of course.

Peace: I think that’s the emphasis, normal wasn’t a good normal. And maybe we didn’t all look at it. It wasn’t so stark, somehow, different people might have been emphasizing it from an equity perspective. I would emphasize it from an economic perspective, because what I won’t highlight here is that there are researchers like Brookings, some of the think tanks, and then in other cases, some more consulting sorts of research organizations that are kind of putting out there, this has implications for the economy. I mean, we can talk about the implications for higher ed, and that part of the economy, but I mean, I just don’t think we can ignore past this, there might have been something brewing, that this was just a perverse sort of way to get our attention on some of it about what the youth of today need? Where do they stand? Are they getting prepared well enough in a way that we need to support the workforce of tomorrow. That’s not the only reason for higher education, but as you and I decide to go take our retirement, these are the kids who will be supporting the country’s economy, and there will be fewer of them. So their ability to do that is really important. So I think, if nothing else, it could be a wake up call. We should really wake up, but we don’t have to wake up screaming and yelling in the house like the fire alarm going off, we need to figure out what to do.

Rebecca: One of the other issues that your report underscored was some high rates of absenteeism. And that’s certainly something I’ve heard my colleagues talk about as well. Can you talk a little bit about some of the potential causes for that?

Peace: Yeah, I will. I also do then want to make a note about something else, but I’ll respond to the absenteeism. So the statistic, 30% of students nationwide were chronically absent in the 2021-2022 school year. So that’s two years into the quote unquote, pandemic period, which is double the pre-COVID19 average. And while not comprehensive, the preponderance of data, were suggesting only minor improvement in the most recent completed school year, 2022 to 2023. That’s huge. Now, chronic absenteeism is different than like average daily attendance and what have you. But still it was a doubling. Absenteeism is the question. I mean, the question is, is it a symptom or is it a cause? And it’s a little bit of both. Prior to COVID students with more day-to-day life or learning challenges were on average, more likely to be absent from school, and a real reason to be absent from school, especially given the kind of hysteria that was almost necessary. As a parent, I got this during COVID. I’m like I was sending my kid to school if they met the temperature well enough for them to go. But being sick is a valid reason for absence. And that was made so much more evident with COVID. And some households and students are just simply more likely to be sick or not recovered as solidly. Now, of course, some of them might already be vulnerable students by virtue of a health condition, but you’ve got students and families that due to their living conditions, or health care access, might be more likely to be absent. One of the phenomenon, if you will, or factors, is social prejudices, and hostile environments for some students more than others. So the Asian and Pacific Islander communities experienced more of that during COVID and that may be lingering in their attendance decisions and the Black Lives movement put in the spotlight the types of stresses that black students might face at school. It can be rational to avoid school, and at this point, some fatigue with that might have set in. So, but even let’s talk about the marginalized students, and is the average student’s disposition to attend school affected by this point in some way, because if it is, then it’s amplified for marginalized students. So school and education that we as adults just talk about and encourage our children to, try to guide them through, pull them through, whatever. They might have become synonymous with very easily influenced young children and their emotional memory with online learning and masking and fear of sneezes and coughs, let alone than what it felt like go back after being socially isolated. And my kid experienced, even in the higher achieving classes, just an unusual rate of disruptions from students transitioning back socially and stuff like that. So these are children. And that can be a far more formative experience. I’m not a psychologist, I can’t say trauma, what have you. But that can be something that that’s all you know, for some of them or a big part of your recent memory. And that can be all you can think of as school, so to ask me to go tomorrow, I might be relying on that recent memory. So I can understand any student in K-12 to some extent, also. Hopefully, as you mature into an adult, you’re able to sort of equip yourself to move past those things. But some of these young adults really having a lot of emotional memory that makes this a real sticky issue, the absenteeism or the lack of kind of bringing their best to the educational setting. I mean, if you want more factors, if that’s not enough, school transportation issues for the past two years and kids literally not having a way to get to school. You’ve got teacher fatigue, and we know how important instructors are in the classroom and what you can bring to it, your ability to do that. And if it couldn’t get worse, because I lived through this with my kid, you still got an unrelenting possibility of like school violence and mass shootings. So there’s a lot of reasons that school does not feel like running through the corridor anything, you know, that maybe we all might have felt as a more positive thing. Now, things hopefully, the last, maybe a year or so where kids are able to start washing some of that out of their memory, and it being replaced with a more normal environment. And hopefully, that’s a good thing for them.

John: One of the things that shows up in the data is while there were learning losses across the board, I believe the learning losses were a bit worse in the area of math. And those seem to be having a pretty significant effect, or at least from what I’ve seen in the classroom, that’s been having quite a bit of an effect on our incoming student body and may have a significant effect on their choice of majors. And we know the rate of return to education in the STEM fields is dramatically higher than it is in other areas. And in terms of the state of the economy, that’s something that could have a very negative impact unless we provide some ways of helping students get caught up in some way. What can colleges and universities do to try to bridge that gap, to take students who, on average are coming in at lower levels, and get them up to the level that they need to be at to be successful?

Peace: As you and I must have been reading some of the most recent coverage on this topic, even just this week. So I can dive into your second question through the lens of STEM. So yes, I had seen some stuff about it more from a HBCU perspective, Jill Barshay of The Hechinger Report, she often does deep data dives. And so earlier this week, she released some interpretations highlighting how the NAEP, those national scores for the K-12 population, those and similar results could conceivably suggest a narrowing of the STEM pipeline for what you’ve mentioned. And so it feels like there are a couple of really interesting points on that… math, at the very least, although clearly, reading comprehension is also very important for sciences and anything, obviously, but those more technical reading types of disciplines. Reading, it cannot be forgotten. So what’s maybe most worth thinking about from what she highlighted was the top students, the NAEP results, you’ve got it 75th percentile 90th percentile, what have you. Top students are staying on grade level, according to those data. And those top students, of course, are maybe definitely the front of the line on the STEM pipeline. But the eighth grade NAEP shows that far fewer of even those who are in the top portion are hitting an advanced performance level or even proficient. So just because you’re in the top, it’s a grading curve, so to speak. Top might not mean what we need for STEM types of disciplines. So, there were learning losses across the board, math scores among the top performers dropped as steeply as did the scores among lower percentile scores. Okay, they call out even the scores of students at Catholic schools. So we understand that that might be a place where some of the STEM students could be concentrated. Otherwise, the scores from those schools would indicate that they weathered the pandemic pretty well. But scores in eighth grade math plummeted. And I just think that that’s another one of these big wake up calls, and it’s in the microenvironment of STEM, but the importance of it to the economy, obviously to the colleges and universities for which that’s a key focus. Now, what might you do even just on this topic, because then I think we can get into a little broader discussion about what to do. I would just ask STEM faculty, if this is the case, if these are the facts, it’s the real fact of the matter. Let’s just free think a little bit and see, to what extent could you meet students at a lower proficiency level if needed. So if it can be quantified, they’re 10% off what you think should be the criteria for even beginning the STEM disciplines, then what have you? If that’s what you have, if that’s going to be sort of the circumstance of even your top applicants, can you do something differently to allow them to actually be admitted? …get on track? What can you do? What would you need to do to actually maybe bridge that distance? If it’s larger, I mean, then obviously, you have to go a little bit, quote, unquote, deeper into the pool or the topic. But if you haven’t, for a while, really look at some of those criteria, sort of indicators and stuff. Because otherwise, we go through the admission cycle, and you might for an entire year of students miss some who could really, with the right approach, potentially continue on their aspiration to STEM. I’d also say, and I don’t really know how this plays out for faculty, and maybe it’s a pie in the sky kind of idea. But we’ve kind of been hearing it from some of our state folks who run the boards of regents and these other sorts of things, which is recognizing that this has occurred, recognizing that it’s always been questionable or difficult necessarily to know, if you could get a guaranteed STEM pipeline, to what extent colleges start reaching backward a little further into the actual high schools and be part of their exposure to and understanding that I might be like, let’s say the eighth or ninth grader, I actually have really, really loved the idea of becoming a scientist or going into medicine or something like that. But I’m starting to waver with my math skills or something. And so these kids aren’t really quite aware. And they’re probably already thinking college and that kind of thing, even at that young age. And if they get a sense that they wouldn’t be admitted, or I’m going to be a failure that early, then they just lose the aspiration, among other things that kind of erode aspiration sometimes in the STEM disciplines. We’ve been hearing from some of the stakeholders, maybe just a real need to actually start acknowledging out loud, whether we can meet students where they are, could we meet them where they are, because they’re the ones who lived this, they know how hard it was. And so their sensitivity to maybe that kind of like, work really hard, and then not actually be able to get into the program they desire and stuff like that. So much of it’s the right thing. But it really comes down to the emotional reaction and decision, as much as quantitatively, could they be close enough to be accommodated, which would be in our better interest if that’s even a possibility? We have to be looking at, I can’t say up front, revise anything, but we should really be, in light of what’s occurred in COVID impacts in K-12, I think we should really be looking at what are some of the hard and fast admission criteria and stuff where they exist. Now, it’s true, like less selective institutions may just end up dealing with the majority of students who have experienced learning impacts, as they always have, but given the fact that even among top performers, there was learning loss evidence, I think we can’t, in any institution, sit back and say, well, it won’t be our problem. So what is within the realm of possibility to meet students where they are, which might be somewhat off of what we would hope. But if it’s not drastically off, for example, then at least we’re taking one step in the direction of meeting them. Because I don’t know how controversial that is. [LAUGHTER] I’m a data person, so from a data perspective, it is one of the few things that I see as a real possibility as you try to make those data points overlap.

Rebecca: So we focused a bit on STEM, if we broaden that a little bit to what universities can do. We talked about admissions criteria, are there other things that we should be thinking about to help our pipelines for all of our fields and disciplines and thinking about the future.

Peace: Yes. What can we do? There’s a sort of like current and then future tense implied by that question. What I would say is, we should have already been doing something. And the reason I say that is because “Okay, so we hear that there might have been some observable, pre-COVID developments on how prepared students were based on those pre-COVID assessment score declines.” So I would ask the question, “Was this not something that folks already were having to, in the margins, sort of deal with? And did they start doing something?” Because if so, do more. Look at the possibility that there should be a sustained, broader perspective. The other thing is that, prior to COVID, the rates of college enrollment, for example, among some of the previously lesser served student populations, Hispanic students, and two or more races, the rates of enrollment were really going up. So were colleges already having to address something about what had already been a changed student population, but for some reasons other than COVID. So again, if you hadn’t been, I think it’s really compelling, you’re going to have to now, but we can kind of maybe step back and say, “Well, what did we do?” Sometimes we forget, we were just dealing with stuff in the moment. And so if we look back, just go back to prior to 2020, and then start thinking about, “Oh, what have we tweaked over there or something,” if that was happening, that would give evidence of what you might consider doing now. Because you might have already been making some adjustments, You might have been piloting some things, you might have only been piloting them with the expectation that it wasn’t something that needed to go full scale, see if they’re there, and approach it from that perspective. As regards to helping students with academic preparation needs, it’s a different situation, but it overlaps with the topic of other types of student supports, because student attention, even if they have the aptitude, might be missing some of the content knowledge. But if they have the aptitude, if their attention is distracted from not only the perennial sorts of things, that some students have to deal with, work demands or lesser educational advantages of many different perspectives. Now, they also might have that academic learning loss, that if we do put some of that supportive environment in place, then could you, STEM or otherwise, meet students at a slightly lower bar, and then still get them successfully where they need to be. We’ve been trying to do that for different student populations for a while, but some of the data would suggest just do more of the same, and until something comes, for example, K-12 data about what to expect with incoming freshmen, expect to sustain it is what I would say. I listened to some of the podcasts that you pointed me to from previous episodes. And I will say one that really resonated with me was the one about relationship-rich education. And then there were several other ones, each of which really kind of touched on various aspects. But I think that relationship-rich education episode, it was specific sorts of interventions, a lot of which, as it suggests, are not specific academic intervention. But they’re the things that we are creating learning spaces, and whether we mean them to be punitive or not, they can be sensed as punitive for students who just really had a difficult four or five years, that about they’re sensitive, so to speak. But to be intentional about learning environments, that don’t take a lot of specific kind of empirically vetted interventions even but intentionality about airing some of this, I would say, with students, like if it can be a discussion point, and you have students who are really feeling the spotlight is going to be on them because it felt like it was really hard to get through my senior year and now I’m going to give this a go. And I know it’s supposed to be challenging and stuff, but maybe they know what part of their senior year or math class was the most difficult for them, if they’re given the space to kind of articulate these sorts of things, it doesn’t have to be in an open discussion forum in a classroom, maybe not, depending on what you need to talk about. But just making it clear to students that they can actually identify some of those needs, that they will be required to be the most responsible for their own learning, but even though we’re going to keep emphasizing standards, and do everything, that we actually do mean to support them, and that we see their success in our best interest, and therefore we’re open to listening, to hearing, to believing what they say. So I would say believe it. On a spectrum, there will always be some people who are maybe struggling the most or otherwise, we would maybe take a general approach that anyone who’s saying some of this is complaining. I would say the evidence would suggest believe [LAUGHTER] that whether we thought it should have been easier for the kids, it impacted them. And so believe it and open up the possibility that if they say what they need, they might be able to identify something for us to do, it could be far simpler and smaller. Some of it can be more time consuming, but maybe if it just becomes common practice to imbue our classrooms with this sense. Students themselves can support each other, that we can hear what they say they need to support them, and it might not be half of the things that we’re worried to mention out loud because we can’t promise it. It’s nothing brilliant, I apologize. And I wouldn’t be the person to speak to in instructional sorts of research, but it definitely resonates with these academic impacts as a result of something that was a societal experience, that we need to be in the space, not just of academics, but of what part of learning methods actually are important for learners. And I’m an adult educator. I have been an adult educator. I wonder, because when I listened to some things that are more about like instructional approaches for equity and for other sorts of things for adult learners, and just what I know about the science of adult learners is I wonder if some extent, this current, quote unquote, generation… I don’t know if it’s an entire generation, but certainly, maybe 10 years worth of students… have actually had adultified in ways that maybe bring them into a space where some of the methodologies that we use in our learning environments, we might learn something from actually thinking about those adult learning and education methods. I think to have to grapple with some of the things that some students, that the entire spectrum of students, it wasn’t just pockets of students have had to deal with, maybe they’ve adultified in some ways, and then yet are not showing it because they don’t have the skills they need from school, I might advise if people kind of consult with what are some things that would be different in an adult kind of focused classroom compared to some of the classrooms that are more typically going to be populated by younger students. There might be some methods there that they can be common sense, but they’re not obvious.

John: One other topic that has come up recently is that colleges were a little bit more flexible during the pandemic in terms of dealing with things like administrative holds, and so forth. Many colleges are starting to put those back in. And one of the implications of that is that students may not be able to register for classes at the start of the term and they may be coming into classes after other students have already been in a class for a while. And I’ve seen that myself this semester, in a way I haven’t seen it since COVID. Is that something that colleges perhaps should be a little bit more careful with?

Peace: For reasons that probably don’t have to do with COVID or anything… but yes, as most things go with COVID, it just amplified possibly. I’d say yes. So on an entirely different sort of research project that I’ve recently worked with, WICHE, my organization, led a action research study of sorts with 12 public colleges and universities. And they each did their own comprehensive data analysis on this topic of every single possible hold a student could get. I mean, it would be a registration hold, like limiting their registration, or maybe access to records or something, but it could be for academic probation, and it could be for paperwork of any sort, it could be for financial aid administration, advising holds that restrict registration. They went comprehensive, they dug deep. And in the first post-COVID academic year, which was 2021-2022, by which I mean, mostly removed from the funding supplements, more than 265,000 holds were placed on roughly 125,000 students across those 12 institutions. And there is wide variation across institutions on per student rates, and stuff like that, and the reasons for them and the observed outcomes that they appear to be having on even just the next-term persistence for students. But by and large, every single institution, we’re able to, by looking at the data, find certain segments of students, part time, certain colleges and disciplines that really needed some attention for what’s a wide-scale, maybe not problem, but certainly a wide-scale sort of thing that each of the institutions would say they didn’t know how to control it. One University, for example, found that a single academic department and this, of course relates to our faculty listeners, place the bulk of all the advising holds, and a significantly higher rate per student than any other academic department or college. And it turned out that these advising holes were well intended, had developed over time as a way to manage the major requirements. But the college never got a bird’s eye view of the whole picture about how they were just sort of being administered. So when the research team at that university brought the data to the Dean, the Dean immediately recognized the holds were not operating as they were intended and took action to substantially revise how they were used. That’s advising holds, and that’s one of the most frequently used type of holds, even though financial holds get a lot of attention for the right reasons. Institutions from those 12 are also reconsidering the exact timing of registration holds within a semester in case that they’re just being too preemptive. Like, it’s easy to just be like “Mark all XYZ-term students not to be able to register until advising” and what have you. I mean, it’s cost effective, it’s kind of solution at scale, if you will. One institution experimented giving a small cohort of students, those who are at risk of academic probation, the ability to actually register at the usual time during the semester with all other students. And then they only denied the registration at very end of the semester for the very small portion actually, even from those students who were still failing. And that small experiment for that university indicated that there wasn’t a difference and no benefit from preemptively limiting registration for the whole swath of students. So why not consider changing that? …especially if unknown, some of those students might have otherwise been impeded. And I want to really mention that this is for everyone, because you, in your seat, you don’t know what other holds are being used around the institution. So any given student is not only receiving the results of the one that you’re using for the right purposes, I’m sure, but they’re receiving any number of these. And if you dial back and see the full scope, often, at least at first glance, you got like low-hanging fruit all over the place that you can reduce them. There was repeated evidence in this study that some registration holds actually did the opposite of what they’re supposed to do, or intended to do, which was to advise students so that they would take the courses that they needed. So then we heard from students, and then some of the evidence that institutions started investigating, that the mere fact of not allowing the students to register during the peak registration period when other students were competing for classes, led them to register late and take classes they don’t need. I mean, they were going to take credits anyway. And could that actual hold be the reason that they end up taking and paying for these courses that they don’t need? Now, we know that’s not what we intended, we intended that they’re taking the right courses, so there are just different way to arrive at that. And then finally, on this topic, the FAFSA… well, I’m going to have to use the word that I see in the press, it’s not my opinion… mess, that I think we need to be ready, at least in this coming fall term, that there will be students and they would be students who have financial aid, who may experience untold, even if they’ve made it through the process they choose to enroll, they could face untold additional ripple effects, one of which is that holds on records and registration are part of the financial aid administration process, so if that has been delayed, and God knows what kind of other sorts of messes have accumulated in that space, if summer is the period during which most of this should be resolved, but students may not be engaging, definitely not as be accessible during summer, I think we need to be ready. And this includes even faculty being aware of what might be happening, or something you don’t know about a given student is struggling with just something like a paperwork mess that’s distracting from their studies. It’s distracting from their attendance and what have you. The more aware we are that could be happening, and it’s told even just through the data with holds, I think it’s just one of those things to be like, why not be that aware? Why not put it out there and be like, “If something other than your coursework, for example, even your financial aid administration after a kind of rough… you know, whatever, say the right words, to characterize it… please let me know so that I can be aware and you can move past that sort of thing.” These things that just add up and distract students who might otherwise be capable in the academic content. So just a lot of different things, honestly, about administrative processes, that really well intentioned, and in many cases can be proven to help support students in that, but just the administration of them, in this case it’s evidence through like holds, needs to be revised continually and kind of perpetually revised, because at the very least, each of the institutions and it wasn’t just these 12 I mean, research by the American Association of collegiate Registrars (AACRAO), and then also ITHAKA S+R had done some research on the topic, just revealing the scope of those administrative processes. Administrative processes should not be almost like a second admissions requirement for students, if they’ve been academically admitted, they shouldn’t be derailed by having to decipher something that literally just may not be well managed, because it’s accumulated over time.

John: And we think that would disproportionately affect first-generation students, where parents are not giving them as much guidance, perhaps, in terms of navigating all those little hoops that they have to jump through.

Peace: Yes, one example here, we’ve got financial aid recipients, which are not just first-generation students. I am a first-generation college graduate. And I only know now what I didn’t know, and thank God, that kind of thing did not stop me because I can look back and go like, “Wow, that was decades ago.” What I would say is the experience that I had, and I may be the case study of one having been exposed to some of these findings with the holds, I as a parent will not stand for that. If I get wind of it with my kid when she goes to college. Whether I would or not, since she’ll have to manage her own affair and stuff like that. But she actually knows about it now too. And just that’s no more than I would stand for a lot of things with my health insurance that were giving me hassles or my paycheck or anything else that’s really super important to me. When it comes to the administration, this is not again, it’s not like pointing fingers or anything. Things just develop over time, and they need to be revised and revisited. Not least of which because you have a new generation of people, but also just because the computer gets buggy and all of a sudden it’s really standing in the way.

Rebecca: You’’ve given us lots to think about. Thanks so much for all the work that you do, Peace, and deciphering it for us as well.

John: We always end with the question. What’s next?

Peace: Well on an organizational news level, we’ll be planning to really see update of the high school graduate projections in the last quarter of this year, 2024. That’s a big huge thing, especially given what I’ve just revealed to you. It’s hard to make projections or predictions about anything, I still don’t feel very much on solid ground there. And you know, I just want to mention on a personal level, me here sitting in my office, not a faculty office in the outside world, so to speak. I’m just really being intentional nowadays, like, I never have been before about compassion with myself and my colleagues. If I had students it would be compassion with my students, because it just really feels like things… zs we know, again, we just had the Debbie Downer discussion… things have been pretty frantic for years now, and it doesn’t feel like there’s any end in sight, because we’ve got some things looming on the horizon. But I’ve been really noticing that a few moments of silence and reflection, like literally just a couple, two to three moments, it goes a long way to getting me further than the two or three hours of just unrelenting pounding away at work that I also end up doing, so I mention that. We have to be kind with ourselves, no matter what we’re doing, and with our colleagues, and I would advocate for that, the compassion and kindness, bringing that to the learning environments can really go a long way, I think.

Rebecca: That’s a really good reminder, when it feels like there’s so much work to be done for sure.

Peace: We can do it.

John: …and having data on incoming students can help prepare us for what’s to come. So thank you for your work on this.

Peace: Thank you.


John: If you’ve enjoyed this podcast, please subscribe and leave a review on iTunes or your favorite podcast service. To continue the conversation, join us on our Tea for Teaching Facebook page.

Rebecca: You can find show notes, transcripts and other materials on teaforteaching.com. Music by Michael Gary Brewer.

Ganesh: Editing assistance by Ganesh.