Teaching & Learning What the Research Says

How Much Real Learning Time Are Students Losing During the Pandemic?

By Sarah D. Sparks — February 02, 2021 3 min read
Image of a clock on a spiral notebook.

After years of district experiments on ways to increase learning time for students, the pandemic has created something of an unintended study of what kind of and how much learning time students will need to progress.

Researchers have long broken up school time into four basic types: allocated school time; allocated class time (literally the hours students are required to be physically present in school or class, including lunch, announcements, and transitions); instructional or formal learning time when a teacher is presenting material, and academic learning time, the period when a student is actually engaging in learning activities. Of those, studies have found more instructional time and academic learning time (also associated with “time on task”) are linked to more learning gains, but simply having students in class or school for longer periods does not.

Unfortunately, a series of new analyses suggest that the pandemic has disrupted both of the most critical kinds of educational time. During 2020, students have received significantly less direct teacher instructional time than during a typical school year and have not spent enough independent time on educational activities to make up for the loss. And the losses in instructional and educational time are more pronounced for students in some racial and income groups than in others.

The analyses, conducted by the Public Policy Institute of California, focused on data from that state in the Census Household Pulse Survey, a weekly survey on life during the pandemic conducted in 2020. Researchers found that by fall, 18 percent of students overall, and 20 percent of those in low-income families, received no live instruction each week. Less than 70 percent of students in the state received some live teaching at least four days a week, with Black, Latino, and low-income students more likely than white or Asian-American students to receive less or no live instruction.

Moreover, a separate analysis by the California group found on average that students have spent less time on independent learning activities than they did before the pandemic, with the average student spending 9.5 hours in study outside of direct instruction. In California, mirroring nationwide statistics, less than 40 percent of parents of public or private school students reported that their children spent as much or more time on independent study as they did before the coronavirus shut schools down in the spring. Low-income parents and those without at least a bachelor’s degree were the most likely to report their students had less educational time on their own, about two hours less than wealthier or college-educated parents reported. The amount of time children spend on education activities on their own varies by age, but some research has suggested secondary students should spend about six hours a week in independent study for each three-credit-hour course they take.

The Census’ most recent national data, from Jan. 6-18, shows those trends haven’t changed much in the new semester. Fifty-two percent of all parents of K-12 students enrolled in public or private schools reported that their children spent less time on all learning activities than they had before the pandemic. That held for students of most racial backgrounds, though nationwide, parents of Black students are now more likely than other racial groups to say their students’ educational activity time has risen or been stable compared to before the pandemic began.

“These trends are cause for concern as distance learning continues, threatening to widen racial and socioeconomic disparities as many students fall further behind,” concluded Nio Gao of PPIC.

There’s not a clear consensus on exactly how much learning time students need and how intensive it should be. For example, studies have found that intensive math and reading blocks, one of the interventions being suggested for helping students recover from learning loss during the pandemic, may provide only short-term gains, particularly for older students.

One 2020 German study of home learning during the pandemic found that students’ ability to stay on task in remote learning environments was closely tied to their self-regulation skills, and recommended that the time spent on activities may be less important than the type of work. Providing fun but challenging independent projects, which could improve students’ self-regulation skills, could lead to better learning over the long term than homework focused on remediating skills.

A version of this article appeared in the February 10, 2021 edition of Education Week as How Much Real Learning Time Are Students Losing During the Pandemic?

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