Remember, pupils forget: learning loss and coronavirus

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Date published 06 July 2020

Learning loss refers to the knowledge and skills lost when a pupil faces gaps in their education.

It can happen for several reasons. On an individual level it could be due to a prolonged health-related absence or school exclusion. But it can also affect larger numbers of pupils, most commonly during the summer holidays but also if they are in a classroom with low-quality teaching.

With the current context of Covid-19, which will see some pupils being out of a normal classroom environment for over four months, the challenge of overcoming lost learning is at a scale we’ve never faced.

But it’s important to remember many teachers will have experience planning for learning loss, particularly after the six-week long summer break.

Using this experience, I believe we can overcome this challenge.

What does the evidence tell us?

To tackle learning loss, we need to begin with a clear understanding of how we learn.

A good starting point is Willingham’s simple model of memory (2009), which summarises decades of research into the science of learning.

Put simply, learning is a persistent change in behaviour or knowledge stored in long-term memory.

Memory is divided into two parts: working memory and long-term memory.

Randal Cremer_two children playing with xylophone

Working memory is where the conscious and effortful act of thinking takes place. It has a limited capacity, so we can only hold a few ‘chunks’ of information at once for a short period of time. If there is too much information, cognitive overload occurs.

Long-term memory is where knowledge that we have acquired through thinking is stored as mental models or schema. This prior knowledge helps to process new knowledge.

Everything we commit to long term memory has a storage strength, how accurate and complete the knowledge is and a retrieval strength, how easily we can recall it. This means if we don’t think about or practice retrieving information from our long-term memory over time, we may struggle to recall the information, or it may be incomplete.

Understanding the role of memory is vital in understanding how we can recoup learning - but it’s important to remember what is forgotten is not lost.

Making the most of remote learning

Remote learning is new territory. However, a recent rapid review from the Education Endowment Foundation has shown that remote learning can be highly effective, regardless of the mode of delivery used - as long as teaching remains high-quality, and pupils are supported to work independently.

Building on what we know about the science of learning, we can apply these findings to support remote learning and mitigate the risk of additional learning loss:

  • Breaking new learning down and framing it in the larger picture of learning.
  • Referring to prior learning and where to find it so pupils can build upon it.
  • Communicating concrete goals and success criteria.
  • Providing examples and models.
  • Having pupils process material by completing tasks.


It’s also important to build in time to assess remote learning. This evaluation will help us to make inferences about pupil learning and respond appropriately.

It will also provide us with crucial feedback that will help us to close the learning loop through feedback or re-teaching content, and inform our planning for remote or classroom learning in the future.

To try to overcome learning loss as a result of forgetting, we also need to create opportunities for pupils to retrieve and review prior learning with practice and testing.

Back to school: how do we catch up lost learning on a national scale?

Most teachers will have experience implementing individualised catch up plans for a pupil who has been absent for a while, whether due to illness, personal circumstances or exclusion.

We also have experience of planning for whole cohorts returning from the long summer holidays, when we expect to see learning loss. While the period of absence from the classroom may be greater, we can still draw on what we know works.

We need to consider the following in our planning and instruction by ensuring:

  • New learning is broken down sufficiently for pupils to process it in working memory.
  • Relevant prior knowledge is retrieved and assessed first so gaps in knowledge and misconceptions are addressed before new learning is introduced.
  • Assessment opportunities are embedded in lessons, and we respond to address misconceptions and gaps in knowledge, as and when they arise.
  • Performance in an end of lesson assessment does not assume learning is complete and there are opportunities to revisit and check learning in the future.

Remember, pupils forget!

We need to remember; pupils will forget – it’s normal!

I am cautiously optimistic that if we plan around pupils forgetting and create opportunities where pupils have to think hard about what they have learned we can limit this.

We may have many challenges ahead of us, but by developing our understanding of how pupils learn and focusing on quality teaching moving forward, we can try to overcome learning loss now and in the future.


Daisy Christodoulou (2020) Remote learning: why hasn’t it worked before and what can we do to change that? [Online] [02 July 2020]

Paul Kirschner (2020) Tips for effective teaching if you have to teach at a distance [Online] [02 July 2020]

Education Endowment Foundation (2020) Remote Learning: Rapid Evidence Assessment [Online]

Education Endowment Foundation (2020) Rapid evidence assessment: Distance learning [Online]

Hattie (2012) Visible Learning for Teacher: Maximising impact on learning, Routledge, New York

Le Thu Huong and Teerada Na Jatturas, The COVID-19 induced learning loss – What is it and how it can be mitigated? [Online] Available from: [02 July 2020]

Willingham, D. T. (2009). Why Don’t Students Like School?. American Educator, 5. 4-13. [Online] Available from [02 July 2020]

Bjork, R. A., & Bjork, E. L. (1992). A new theory of disuse and an old theory of stimulus fluctuation. In A. Healy, S. Kosslyn, & R. Shiffrin (Eds.), From learning processes to cognitive processes: Essays in honor of William K. Estes (Vol. 2, pp. 35-67). Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.

Yan, V. (2018). Retrieval Strength Vs. Storage Strength. [Online] Available from: [02 July 2020]

Paula Delaney
Paula Delaney
Manager, Learning Design

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