Mind the Gap

Usually, the term “learning gap” refers to the difference between what students have learnt and what they should have learnt. However, Stay at home for school students and their parents has raised the issue of whether students experiencing a gap in school attendance are disadvantaged. Like most important issues, the answer is complex, not simple, and varies for every student. As Christian teachers, we want the best for each of our students, so this matter is of interest and how we react is crucial to our witness about God’s love in a changing world.

The default position

On the surface, it is easy to argue that students will be disadvantaged by not having face to face lessons in a classroom environment, otherwise why would we build classrooms, employ teachers and allocate resources to schools. And this view is supported by the growing community realisation that online learning is not a universal solution. Besides, there are other social benefits from learning with others in a school environment.

The gap

Realising that, during the coronavirus epidemic, students will not be at school, education authorities rushed to develop and to use existing online learning activities and to use internet communication via Zoom and other apps to communicate directly with students. While this engagement kept teachers fully occupied, some parents struggled to supervise and assist with home lessons. These initiatives aimed to avoid the expected gap in learning from students not completing their school year/grade curriculum requirements in a range of subjects for their age cohort.

Research findings

But how real is the gap and is there any research evidence? Perhaps the closest research is from the United States where students can have a break of up to 10 weeks for summer. In a study *Summer learning loss: What is it, and what can we do about it? *Quinn and Polikoff (2017) review the literature and concluded that: (1) on average, students’ achievement scores declined over summer vacation by one month’s worth of school-year learning, (2) declines were sharper for math than for reading, and (3) the extent of loss was larger at higher grade levels.

One study using data from over half a million students in grades 2-9 from a southern state (from 2008-2012) found that students, on average, lost between 25 – 30 percent of their school-year learning over the summer. However, an analysis of the nationally-representative Early Childhood Longitudinal Study, Kindergarten Class of 2010 – 11 (ECLS-K:2011) found little evidence of overall loss over the summers after grades K and 1.

Also, relevant to the current Australian experience is that this report also looked at vacation programs aimed to help all students but particularly students from disadvantaged backgrounds. They found that advantaged students got most from these programs because the level of parental support was higher. This may relate to the current online learning at home where students with higher educated parents and resources, both technological and personal, achieve greater learning. Closing the gap between students with different backgrounds is not an outcome and those disadvantaged can fall further behind in their cohort.

Some parents have found the experience of having their children learn at home a good one and are now considering home schooling. Although they understand the burden of home schooling, they see that their children can progress at their own rate and feel more confident. However, as students reach higher grades, parent expertise across the curriculum diminishes and tutoring is often called for. Some of these parents are calling for a hybrid model with home schooling and classroom learning being used.

In home schooling the lack of social contact with others can be compensated for by activities including participating in sporting teams. However, it is harder to compensate the loss of opportunity to develop leadership skills, to work in groups and hear different perspectives. But students involved in distance learning in isolated situations rely heavily on parents whether part of home schooling or distance education with regular contact with an allocated teacher. As with online learning, independent learners do best in these situations.

Unlike the USA vacation, the coronavirus gap has not entirely been a holiday as studentshave been expected to complete online work and to communicate regularly with their teachers. If from the research the average loss is one month’s learning for 10 weeks of vacation, then it should be something less than this during the at home period for the coronavirus. But the loss and gains will not be even across all students.

The gap varies with every student

Some of the issues that affect the success of closing the gap between learning at school and learning at home are(in no particular order of importance):

  1. One size fits all
    The curriculum is set in age/year grades and students’ progress through these grades receiving reports on progress. Students who are unsuccessful are not encouraged to repeat for mainly social reasons and therefore moved with their cohort into the next grade. This can mean that some students are always behind, although others, with increasing maturity, catch up. Students who are having difficulty keeping up with their peers may find that they have fallen further behind from online learning unless they have been subject to close supervision from their teacher and parents at home. For some students the gap between what they know and can do and what is expected of their cohort may have widened.
  2. Progression through the curriculum (time verses outcomes)
    There is a common argument that given time all students can achieve their grade learning outcomes in all subjects. In this regard, online learning that has focussed on revision and consolidation may assist students who have been straggling. However, the students who have been doing well may find the online learning repetitive and able to be completed by morning tea. In these cases, the learning gap may be narrowed but other students are not challenged by new work and easily bored.
  3. On task learning
    A teacher working from school with students in their homes has the added problem of keeping students on task. Even in the daily school environment students may seem to be working but on further investigation found to be doing other tasks or simply unmotivated. In this regard parents have borne a heavy burden of keeping their children on task. Time is not the only matter. Whether the students are actually doing anything, or doing it to their best ability, is an issue that may vary with every student. The learning gap between face to face classroom learning and online learning may vary with how on task the student is.
  4. Learning new concepts
    While revision and consolidation can be the focus of online learning, the learning of new concepts poses another set of problems for teachers and parents at home assisting their children. New concepts need careful explanations and examples and each student learns at a different rate. Some get it the first time, but other struggle for weeks if not years. Moving whole cohorts of students into new concepts is particularly difficult online. Some online programs do it well, but, for most students, this is where teachers earn their pay.
  5. Access to resources (including parents)
    Inequality is another factor in explaining this gap between learning at school and online learning. A significant inequality is the education level of parents or grandparents who have the task of supervising the children at home. It is not simply a question of what the parent might know, but the issues of on task learning. Even the most dedicated parents may find that the way students are taught some concepts or methods, especially inmathematics, are very different to how they learn the same concepts and methods. They quickly realise that teaching their children by their method could make learning more difficult when the teacher does it differently.
  6. Independent learning
    For whatever reasons some students have learnt to be independent learners who like to have tasks set that they can work away at by themselves. They are motivated and disciplined. These students have a clear advantage in online learning over other students.
  7. Teacher quality
    Research indicates that the biggest explanation for differences in student outcomes between classes is the teacher. In the current analysis students who have teachers that can adapt well to online learning will have an advantage. This is the reality of education. Some teachers are better than others at their work and students can thrive with one teachers and lag behind with another.Maintaining teacher quality through appropriate training programs is always a priority and many teachers have been on a steep learning curve about online learning.
  8. Disadvantage and learning
    Students from disadvantaged backgrounds often lag behind other students including in online learning. Recent work by The Centre for Independent Studies and a Report by the Smith Family Australia highlight the educational disadvantagesincluding the lack of equipment/technology which means that other students are privileged by being resource rich in comparison.Despite the disadvantages, schools and teachers with students from disadvantaged backgrounds need to have high expectations of these students and provide new ways for them to access the curriculum to achieve.Often the focus in schools has been on the disadvantages and not on the learning leading to some teachers believing that students from disadvantage backgrounds cannot learn like other students. Yes, it’s a struggle, but these students are not less intelligent and need to be taught well so that they can overcome disadvantage. The online learning and classroom gap for these students cannot be overcome by ignoring this fundament issue and the better provision of technology.


Depending on the students, their teacher and the home resources, students are disadvantaged in different ways by online learning compared to face to face classroom learning. Some students who are struggling at school will continue to struggle at home, but through extra revision and consolidation may pick up on other students in their class, although not if new work and concepts are introduced. For the bright independent learning students, online learning can be easy and a bit boring, so they desire something new and challenging. Both long to meet friends and play sport and games. School is not only about academic learning.

Expectations are very powerful in determining educational outcomes. If teachers expect a gap then one can develop, but if they expect high achievement then students are more likely to reach that achievement. It is particularly important that Christian teachers maintain high expectations so that students have every opportunity to know God through their studies and relationships.

If the research is showing that on average one month of learning is lost through an extended period away from school, then the online learning should have helped to close this gap and ready students for the return to school. How big this gap is will be different for every child according to the variations listed above. One thing is certain, dedicated teachers can quickly close any gap and have students back on track. They and their students, especially HSC students, will be highly motivated and this,of itself, will be a key factor in success.

In Christchurch, New Zealand 2011, after the earthquake, students missed a term of school. The learning report from the Education Review Office indicates students across greater Christchurch achieved some of the best National Certificate of Educational Achievement (NCEA) resultsin New Zealand in 2011, with some schools reporting an increase of up to 15%.

John Gore