Optimism During the Crisis: Initial Studies Show Stable Learning Outcomes During the Lockdown

Initial studies in Germany are showing that despite a strong fear of negative repercussions in regard to learning outcome due to the pandemic, learning loss is not as bad as projected.

Professor Christoph Helm
Professor Christoph Helm

Have school students suffered learning losses due to school closures in lieu of the coronavirus pandemic? Initial large-scale performance studies in Germany are showing that despite a strong fear of negative effects on learning outcome, learning loss is not as bad as projected. Christoph Helm, an education researcher at the Johannes Kepler University Linz, is analyzing whether or not these findings are applicable in Austria.

In a surprising and gratifying twist, initial large-scale performance studies conducted in Germany and Switzerland are showing that student learning development (primary and secondary grade levels) does not differ dramatically from before school lockdowns were initiated. Univ. Prof. Christoph Helm remarked, “When it comes to targeted learning objectives, these findings give us hope that we have been able to avoid all too negative effects due to the pandemic.

One of the most frequently asked questions in regard to school closures because of the pandemic is about the degree of learning loss when switching from in-person classroom education to remote learning. Helm conducted a meta-analysis of the over 100 survey studies about the first lockdown in Germany, Austria and Switzerland, showing that parents, teachers and educational researchers are very concerned

Approximately 260,000 people are included in the meta-analysis, showing that about one-fifth to one-half of students - and about one-third to two-thirds of parents - fear the negative repercussions remote learning will have on successful student learning.

Helm and his research team recently conducted a parent survey about the third lockdown in January 2021. The survey was representative of Austria and showed a similar outcome in that 58% of parents agreed with the statement that their child learned significantly less during the school lockdown in January 2021 than during normal in-person education before the pandemic. The percentage of students who studied less than two hours per day for school dropped significantly during the third lockdown. In a comparative German study, while around 40% of students were studying during the first lockdown, the proportion fell to around 10% by the third lockdown.

These findings also fueled fears among experts in education that the pandemic would have a strong negative impact on students' learning development. Educational experts have also been present in the media, saying the degree of lockdown-related learning losses are high to extremely high. "In the absence of performance studies in Austria - and until recently also for German-speaking Europe - the question is whether or not these expert opinions - fed exclusively by subjective student, parent and teacher assessments - are justified," says Helm, because "… current performance studies conducted in Germany and Switzerland provide a very clear answer: they have not observed learning losses or they far less dramatic than previously feared."

Stable Learning Outcomes during Lockdown
During a recent international digital conference for the German Society for Empirical Educational Research, leading researchers in the field in charge of measuring student skills presented their latest findings on the topic of learning loss due to school lockdowns.

Presentations included the first large-scale student achievement studies from the German states of Hamburg (approx. 28,000 students), Baden-Württemberg (approx. 80,000 students), Hesse, and North Rhine-Westphalia (approx. 5,000 students), as well as a study from German-speaking Switzerland (approx. 29,000 students). All studies compared the achievement or learning development of the 2020 cohort of students with the achievement or learning development of cohorts of students (mostly from several grades) before the pandemic in order to study the negative effects of the lockdowns based on complex mathematical models. Academic achievement was measured in German, reading, and/or mathematics.

Prof. Helm stated, “All of the studies conducted in Germany show either no - or only weak differences (to the extent of about four weeks of learning gains) - between student performance (and performance development) before, during and after the pandemic. There does not seem to be any dramatic loss due to changes in the classroom because of the pandemic." There is one exception: The Swiss study on primary school students showed only half as much learning success as before the lockdown. Initial national performance studies are also available from the U.S., the U.K., the Netherlands, and Belgium, some of which point to significant learning losses - again, especially when it comes to primary school students and students from socially disadvantaged families. The school subject also makes a difference and there seems to be a lesser degree of learning loss in the area of reading while the learning loss is higher in math.

Helm stated: "In conclusion, these recent findings from neighboring German-speaking countries suggest that the much-feared negative effects in education resulting from the pandemic have failed to materialize, at least for the time being in Germany."

Is In-Person Classroom Learning Overrated?
In the end, it seems students, parents, teachers, principals, school administrators, and educational policies have been able to avert the negative effects of school lockdowns - at least in regard to the students' subject-specific learning. Parents, in particular, seem to have been successful in compensating for the loss of school structure, despite their multiple burdens during the lockdown. One possible explanation is that those in the school system were able to quickly navigate the new situation. Another explanation could be a misconception: Apparently, the quantity and quality of in-person learning is generally more highly valued in regular classes, but it is actually not that much different from those in remote learning. During regular classes, for example, a lot of time is spent listening and waiting (according to some studies, it can be up to over than half of the time spent in class) and there is less time for intellectually stimulating activities, such as working independently or in groups, to solve problems or work on exercises in reading, writing, math, etc. In addition, there is a high degree of absenteeism when it comes to certain groups of students.

And what is the situation in Austria?
As there is a lack of performance studies in Austria, the extent of findings in Germany and Switzerland cannot be applied to Austria with certainty. This is where educational policies and educational research are being called upon to become more active. We know with certainty that the educational systems in German states and Swiss cantons are similar to the Austrian educational system than the Anglo-Saxon systems. For the time being, the German findings mean Austria can be optimistic. Performance studies about later lockdowns (which were more pronounced in Austria than in Germany) are still pending. However, initial representative parent surveys conducted in Germany and Austria show that the students' time spent studying at home has increased and many are now coping better with remote learning. This suggests a loss of learning is even less likely.

We will know more about the way Austrian students have weathered the crisis as soon as the next set of international performance studies (PISA, TIMSS, PIRLS, ...) can be conducted again.

Prof. Helm warned, "In regard to discussions about student performance, we cannot omit aspects that include the pandemic’s negative toll on kids and teens, especially the social and psychological impact. While these have been scientifically proven in many cases, they do not, however, seem to be a part of a student’s negative academic performance development."

Click here, opens an external URL in a new window for an overview of the performance studies containing sources to the original reports.