Inside IES Research

Notes from NCER & NCSER

Exploring How COVID-19 Affects Learning and Critical Thinking

Our nation continues to navigate a unique and challenging year due to the COVID-19 pandemic. In our first blog post in this series, we highlighted how educators, students, families, and researchers are adapting while trying to engage in opportunities to support learning. COVID-19 has created numerous challenges in education research with many studies needing to be modified or put on hold. At the same time, new research questions arise focusing on the impact of the pandemic on student learning, engagement, and achievement. Here, we highlight two IES-funded projects that are conducting timely and relevant research exploring the impact of COVID-19 on learning and critical thinking.    

Guanglei Hong, Lindsey Richland, and their research team at University of Chicago and University of California, Irvine have received supplemental funds to build off their current grant, Drawing Connections to Close Achievement Gaps in Mathematics. The research team will conduct a study during the 2020-21 school year to explore the relationship between student anxiety about the health risks associated with COVID-19 and their math learning experiences. They predict that pressure and anxiety, like that induced by COVID-19, use the same executive function resources that students need to engage in higher order thinking and reasoning during math instruction, which negatively affects the ability to learn. Through this study, the research team will also test whether particular instructional approaches reduce the effects of pressure and anxiety on learning. These findings will be useful for teachers and students in the near term as they navigate the COVID-19 pandemic and longer term for students who experience anxiety due to a variety of other reasons.

In addition, IES has funded an unsolicited grant to Clarissa Thompson at Kent State University to investigate whether an education intervention aimed at decreasing whole number bias errors can help college-aged students and adults more accurately interpret health statistics about COVID-19. During the COVID-19 pandemic, the public receives daily updates about the number of people locally, nationally, and globally who are infected with and die from COVID-19. Beliefs about the risk of getting a disease is a key predictor of engagement in prevention behaviors. Understanding the magnitude of one’s risk may require making sense of numerical health information, often presented in the form of rational numbers, such as fractions, whole number frequencies, and percentages. An intervention to decrease whole number bias errors and improve understanding of rational numbers has the immediate and pressing benefit of being able to accurately reason about the risk of COVID-19 and other health risks. This skill is also critical for success in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields.

Both of these projects offer opportunities to better understand learning and critical thinking in the midst of the pandemic. They will also provide the field with generalizable information about ways to improve learning in STEM fields. Stay tuned for more COVID-19 related education research discussions as we continue this series on our blog.


Written by Christina Chhin ( and Erin Higgins (, National Center for Education Research (NCER).

This is the third in a series of blog posts focusing on conducting education research during COVID-19. Other blog posts in this series include Conducting Education Research During COVID-19 and Measuring Attendance during COVID-19: Considerations for Synchronous and Asynchronous Learning Environments.