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How to catch students up in less time: 6 strategies to expedite learning recovery

March 5, 2021

Although districts have made herculean strides to educate students during the pandemic, many students have made minimal academic gains while others have fallen behind. Students—on average—are expected to end up at least five months behind where they typically should be by the start of next year. Additionally, the number of students failing core classes has nearly doubled this year alone— with low-income, ELL, and special ed students suffering the most.

The path to learning recovery is steep, but not impossible. EAB has spent the past year looking for pockets of success and collecting best practices designed to help students recover from the pandemic’s impact on their learning. Many of these strategies are instructional in nature and should not stand alone. To maximize their impact, district leaders should pair learning recovery strategies with initiatives that strengthen student’s wellbeing and promote productive teacher-student relationships.

With that in mind, here are six key strategies that districts can collectively deploy to help students get back on track in less time.

1. Prioritize limited instructional time on the lessons and skills that matter most

Instructional minutes are only as valuable as what occurs during that time. With students behind and class time at a premium, teachers will need to be hyper-critical of what they teach and assign.

On average, teachers spend roughly 40% of typical class time on low-impact activities—such as teaching skills that students have already mastered or spending too much time on activities that are unrelated to teacher goals. Teachers who aren’t mindful of their time or what they teach can inadvertently miss opportunities to provide students the instruction they need to advance.

  • 40%

    of typical class time spent on low-impact activities.

While many teachers this year have started to eliminate old lessons that don’t appear to serve students, their process of doing so is often inconsistent and not always effective. Districts will need a provide a shared definition and set of criteria to help educators discern what is and is not considered a high value lesson. EAB’s curriculum prioritization tool is designed to help educators strategically audit their curriculum and lessons to maximize instructional time. By refocusing class time on the lessons that matter, teachers can increase the likelihood that students learn.

2. Use summer “prepare to learn” days to gather sample data on student learning gaps

Educators and students can’t afford to forgo data collection this year. Teachers need some level of insight into what students have and haven’t learned to be effective in the fall.

One way to gather this data is to invite all students in the district to participate in-person “prepare to learn” days over the summer. “Prepare to learn” days are half-day, in-person sessions that are designed for two purposes: 1) to orient students to the new school year using engaging, non-academic activities and 2) to measure students’ mastery of essential standards in a low-stakes setting using short reading and math assessments that are designed and analyzed by a group of teacher leaders from each grade. Although securing 100% student participation is unlikely, districts can maximize student attendance by providing multiple date options and offering bus transportation for students in need. In the end, districts should strive for some data this summer instead of none. Even partial participation can yield useful information for instructional planning.

3. Develop district-wide knowledge on the science of learning and its implication for instruction

Learning recovery strategies cannot be effective without instructional quality. Research consistently suggests that pairing students with highly effective teachers leads to better learning outcomes, increased learning retention, and more motivated students—regardless of the mode of instruction.

The key is to develop a district-wide shared understanding of high-quality teaching that is grounded in science. For nearly forty years, research centers across the globe representing diverse fields— including neuroscience, psychology, and child development—have examined how the human brain learns, how reading works, and what gets people motivated.  This collection of scientific insights provides a blueprint for districts that want to enhance teacher efficacy.

District leaders can begin to scale these science-based practices by focusing professional development opportunities on the science of learning and its practical implications. But connecting teachers to this body of knowledge doesn’t mean district leaders will need to start from scratch. EAB will release a science of learning resource for teachers in the coming months.

4. Redesign small group instruction to target students’ underlying skill deficits in reading and math

How students are grouped for small group support can either expedite or hinder learning recovery efforts. Using broad grouping metrics—such as academic levels or composite scores—to organize students for small group instruction rarely leads to significant academic advancement.

Educators should group students by skill need, instead of generic reading or math levels. This proven-to-work method means that students from different “levels” are placed in the same group because they struggle with the same skill. Using a skills-based grouping approach in small group instruction refocuses teachers’ attention on underlying skill gaps, and provides students the targeted support they need to advance. Refer to EAB’s skills-based grouping toolkit to learn how to implement this practice in your district.

5. Crowdsource virtual tutor volunteers to provide additional skill-based support

High-intensity tutoring programs have the potential to help struggling students advance their skills and gain up to three additional months of learning within 25 sessions. They also tend to be expensive to launch and operate.

But districts don’t necessarily need large discretionary budgets to provide quality tutoring. District leaders have found ways to replicate similar high-quality tutoring without the cost by sourcing virtual tutor volunteers directly from staff networks. Here are the three steps to start skills-based intensive tutoring without breaking bank:

  • Source virtual volunteer tutors by asking every staff member to submit five contacts from their network.

  • Pair struggling students with vetted tutors who demonstrate strength or interests in a specific core subject.

  • Enhance tutoring quality by asking teachers to use remediation handoff sheets to communicate student skill gaps, observations, and recommendations to tutors directly.

6. Source promising learning recovery solutions directly from teachers

Research on learning recovery is still emerging, so it’s imperative that district leaders actively learn from successes and mistakes along the way. The most promising solutions are likely to come from teachers who are innovating on the ground.

Don’t let promising teacher-led ideas go unnoticed and remain hidden. Instead, formalize a way to collect and share out the best ideas so that the entire school community can benefit. Begin by asking teachers every month to submit their most promising ideas and corresponding results via email or a google doc. Then disseminate the most promising ideas that seem to have results in emails, newsletters, and staff meetings. At the end of the day, learning recovery is an all-hands-on deck effort. By sourcing innovative solutions from teachers, district leaders are better equipped to address the learning challenges ahead.

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