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Summer Learning Loss What it is and what to do about it

Summer Learning Loss: What it is, and what to do about it

6 min read
  • The science of learning

It isn’t uncommon for students to struggle in their first few weeks back at school – often, this is because they’re experiencing a summer learning loss. This phenomenon consists in students losing academic skills and knowledge as a result of a long summer break.

Taking some proactive steps and getting parents and guardians involved can help minimise summer learning loss. We’ve taken a look at the key research and come up with some helpful tips for teachers and parents to combat these effects and make the transition into the next school year as easy as possible for students. Read on to learn more about:

  • What the research says about summer learning loss
  • Who summer learning loss impacts the most
  • How schools and parents can help mitigate summer learning loss

What does the research say about summer learning loss?

A review of 13 studies which looked at over 50,000 students suggested that they experience an average summer learning loss estimated to equal about one month of the academic year. The effect of the summer holidays is typically more detrimental for Maths, which is possibly due to the limited availability of math practice outside of formal school settings.

More recently, researchers looked at the results of more than 3.5 million students to explore whether these students suffered from a summer learning loss and whether they could find any factors that predicted it.

Here’s what they found:

  • On average, students experienced a loss of 1-2 months in their reading skills and 1-3 months in their mathematical skills.
  • The strongest predictor of this loss was the size of gain students made the previous year – the more they gained during the year, the more they lost over the summer.

Who does summer learning loss affect the most?

Studies indicate a link between socioeconomic status and level of loss during the summer holidays. It was found that after the summer holidays, middle class students showed no change in their reading and language abilities, whilst students of a lower socio-economic status saw their abilities diminish. This created a gap between these students that was equivalent to three months.

But what causes these differences? Generally speaking, these differences occurred because those of a lower socioeconomic status may have limited access to learning related activities during the holidays in comparison to those who have a higher socioeconomic status. This in turn can lead to these students being left behind and therefore struggle when they return to school. Eventually, this means that these students will have a smaller chance to be successful.

However, more recent research suggests that socio-economic status is no longer a predictor. Interestingly, the biggest factor was how much information the students learnt throughout the year. Those who learnt the most in the previous year were the most likely to experience a summer learning loss.

The researchers highlighted some reasons for summer learning loss, including:

  • A lack of access to summer programs
  • The length of the school year
  • Test disengagement, with students less motivated to do well on their first test after summer

However, these explanations are still being explored – there are many, many more factors that play a role in predicting Summer Learning Loss.

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So, what can schools do to counterbalance summer learning loss?

A great way to ensure that your students come back in September ready to learn is to help them return from the summer break having forgotten as little as possible from the previous year. But that doesn’t mean you should give them tons of homework to complete over the break when they (and you) should be resting.

Instead, schools can implement these strategies:

Offer study support

Returning to school after the summer break can be daunting and struggling students may require some extra attention. Research indicates that study support can be beneficial to students at any academic level as it improves their skills and gives them opportunities to develop particular interests. Furthermore, it allows pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds to study in a safe environment and gives them access to resources that may not be readily available to them at home.

Efficient goal-setting

An invaluable measure to ensure that students stay focused is goal setting. Setting specific goals for each student, e.g., to read a certain number of books within a month, will create positive habits that students can implement year-round. This can help mitigate the negative effects of the summer learning loss.

To set efficient goals, we suggest that your students:

  • Set both bigger and smaller goals
  • Make the goals challenging…
  • … but be wary of perfectionism
  • Find a “why” for the goals
  • Set goals for skills you want to see improve
  • Plan for possible obstacles (and how to overcome them)
  • Co-create the goals with your students for accountability

Find out more about these strategies on our blog How to Do Goal Setting Right, and download our free goal-setting printable worksheets to help guide students through the process.

Get parents involved

Teachers can take a proactive approach in keeping parents and guardians involved in their child’s learning by sending weekly emails updating them on what their child is learning at that moment and providing consistent feedback on areas of strength and improvement. Parental involvement is crucial in the process of regaining the academic skills and knowledge lost during the summer.

What can parents and guardians do?

Go on educational trips

Even when a child returns to school, the responsibility for overcoming the summer learning loss should not solely be handed back to the teacher. Instead, parents and guardians should be looking to offer their child a home environment that fosters learning. This means giving children an alternative to spending large amounts of time watching the TV or playing video games by taking them on fun but educational trips after school or at the weekend.

For example, one particular study found that taking children to a museum not only improves their knowledge but also their ability to solve problems and enhances their creativity. Therefore, taking time out to go on low-cost trips can help students continue their learning and improve their skills.

Encourage learning new skills

Summer is also a good time for students to develop new skills and hobbies. Let’s take an example: if students learn how to bake, they can improve their skills in reading and following instructions by reading the recipe, but also work on mathematical skills when measuring out ingredients – and at the end of the day, there’s even cake to look forward to.

Outside of learning, this is also a great strategy for families to use for their child’s well-being. Taking part in activities with their parents or guardians can help create a closer bond and help build lifelong memories. This is highly important as research suggests that summer holidays are one of the loneliest times of the year for students.

Read with your child at home

Another way in which parents and guardians can help their child overcome the summer learning loss is by encouraging their child to read either with them or alone at home. Reading does not to have to be time consuming to make a difference, as research conducted by the National Literacy Trust found that “reading for just 10 minutes a day is enough to have an impact on a child’s learning”.

Encourage physical exercise

Currently, the NHS recommends that children take part in 60 minutes of exercise a day. However, according to UKactive, students are losing 80% of the amount of exercise they gained during term time as they are inactive during summer holidays.

Despite the negative physical impact this has on students, it can also negatively affect their academic performance. Some negative outcomes of being inactive include:

Therefore, it is important that students take part in different sports activities they enjoy throughout the summer. They can also spend more time going to the park or playing outside.

Final thoughts

The latest research on summer learning loss has shown that it is still prevalent, with students’ reading and mathematical skills declining after summer.

Although the key reason for this, if there is one, is still unknown, there are different ways to help reduce the impact of this loss. Going on educational trips, learning new skills and making sure to get physical exercise can help students ensure that they continue learning throughout the summer – and we can help them build these habits throughout the year.


About the editor

Bradley Busch

Bradley Busch

Bradley Busch is a Chartered Psychologist and a leading expert on illuminating Cognitive Science research in education. As Director at InnerDrive, his work focuses on translating complex psychological research in a way that is accessible and helpful. He has delivered thousands of workshops for educators and students, helping improve how they think, learn and perform. Bradley is also a prolific writer: he co-authored four books including Teaching & Learning Illuminated and The Science of Learning, as well as regularly featuring in publications such as The Guardian and The Telegraph.

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