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Learning Loss in Higher Education
December 2020


What does the research say about student learning loss in higher education due to COVID-19?

Ask A REL Response

Thank you for your request to our Regional Educational Laboratory (REL) Reference Desk. Ask A REL is a collaborative reference desk service provided by the 10 RELs that, by design, functions much in the same way as a technical reference library. Ask A REL provides references, referrals, and brief responses in the form of citations in response to questions about available education research.

Following an established REL Northwest research protocol, we conducted a search for evidence- based research. The sources included ERIC and other federally funded databases and organizations, research institutions, academic research databases, Google Scholar, and general Internet search engines. For more details, please see the methods section at the end of this document.

The research team has not evaluated the quality of the references and resources provided in this response; we offer them only for your reference. The search included the most commonly used research databases and search engines to produce the references presented here. References are listed in alphabetical order, not necessarily in order of relevance. The research references are not necessarily comprehensive and other relevant research references may exist. In addition to evidence-based, peer-reviewed research references, we have also included other resources that you may find useful. We provide only publicly available resources, unless there is a lack of such resources or an article is considered seminal in the topic area.


Aucejo, E. M., French, J. F., Araya, M. P. U., & Zafar, B. (2020). The impact of COVID-19 on student experiences and expectations: Evidence from a survey (NBER Working Paper No. 27392). Retrieved from

From the Abstract:
"In order to understand the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on higher education, we surveyed approximately 1,500 students at one of the largest public institutions in the United States using an instrument designed to recover the causal impact of the pandemic on students' current and expected outcomes. Results show large negative effects across many dimensions. Due to COVID-19: 13% of students have delayed graduation, 40% lost a job, internship, or a job offer, and 29% expect to earn less at age 35. Moreover, these effects have been highly heterogeneous. One quarter of students increased their study time by more than 4 hours per week due to COVID-19, while another quarter decreased their study time by more than 5 hours per week. This heterogeneity often followed existing socioeconomic divides; lower-income students are 55% more likely to have delayed graduation due to COVID-19 than their higher-income peers. Finally, we show that the economic and health related shocks induced by COVID-19 vary systematically by socioeconomic factors and constitute key mediators in explaining the large (and heterogeneous) effects of the pandemic."

Day, T., Chang, I. C. C., Chung, C. K. L., Doolittle, W. E., Housel, J., & McDaniel, P. N. (2020). The immediate impact of COVID-19 on postsecondary teaching and learning. The Professional Geographer, 1-13. Retrieved from

From the Abstract:
"Universities and colleges worldwide have quickly moved campus-based classes to virtual spaces due to the COVID-19 pandemic. This article explores the impact of this sudden transition of learning and teaching based on experiences and evidence from six institutions across three countries. Our findings suggest that although online and remote learning was a satisfactory experience for some students, various inequities were involved. Many students lacked appropriate devices for practical work and encountered difficulties in securing suitable housing and workspace. Students were stressed, and faculty were, too, especially those in precarious employment. The lack of fieldwork and access to laboratories created special challenges. We are concerned that the lack of hands-on experience could cause a decline in enrollments and the number of majors in geography over the next few years. This issue must be addressed by making introductory courses as engaging as possible. It is too early to determine the extent to which online and remote learning can replace campus-based, face-to-face geography education once the pandemic ends, but the new academic year of 2020–2021 will be revealing. Nevertheless, the COVID-19 crisis has revealed preexisting problems and inequalities that will need our collective effort to address, regardless of the pandemic’s trajectory."

Hasan, N., & Bao, Y. (2020). Impact of "e-Learning crack-up" perception on psychological distress among college students during COVID-19 pandemic: A mediating role of "fear of academic year loss". Children and Youth Services Review, 118, 105355. Retrieved from

From the Abstract:
"While literature reveals the positive perception of e-Learning, this study examined and assessed the impact of eLearning crack-up perceptions on psychological distress among college students during COVID-19 pandemic. Kessler psychological distress scale (K10) was used to evaluate stress symptoms. This study first conducted an online focus group discussion (OFGD) with the target population to develop the scale of "e-Learning crack-up" and "fear of academic year loss". Afterward, a questionnaire was developed based on OFGD findings. An online survey was conducted amongst college students in Bangladesh using a purposive sampling technique. Results show that "e-Learning crack-up" perception has a significant positive impact on student’s psychological distress, and fear of academic year loss is the crucial factor that is responsible for psychological distress during COVID-19 lockdown. This study can provide an understanding of how "e-Learning crack-up" and "Fear of academic year loss" influence college students’ mental health. Theoretically, this study extends and validated the scope of Kessler's psychological distress scale with two new contexts. Practically, this study will help the government and policymakers identify the student's mental well-being and take more appropriate action to address these issues."

Kolack, K., Hemraj-Benny, T., & Chauhan, M. (2020). Community college chemistry instruction and research in the time of COVID-19. Journal of Chemical Education, 97(9), 2889–2894. Retrieved from

From the Abstract:
"In March of 2020, as New York City was becoming the global epicenter of the COVID-19 pandemic, the 3 authors, members of the Chemistry Department at Queensborough Community College City University of New York, had 1 week to move their 13 lecture and laboratory sections of 4 different first-year undergraduate courses plus 2 active undergraduate research programs online. Students some of whom live in the areas of New York City hardest hit by the pandemic and/or are employed as essential workers or caregivers or were learning in a challenging environment attended synchronous and/or asynchronous lectures and laboratories for the second half of the semester. Five percent of the 262 students in their classes were unable to complete the semester for undetermined technology, access, or personal reasons. While the authors feel that a redesign of the laboratory experience is necessary to satisfy general education outcomes if online laboratories are to continue in the long term, lecture students performed well post-transition. Students whose performance was 5−12% lower on exams in Spring 2020 than Fall 2019 (pre-COVID) performed 12− 25% better following the transition to online learning, although academic integrity remains a matter of great concern. The authors caution that the crisis-response distance education offered in the second half of the Spring 2020 semester was only that, and further effort will be necessary as online learning continues. The prior online experience of the faculty members varied, but all found it both a stressful transition and a valuable exercise in altering their pedagogical approaches for the future."

Lederer, A. M., Hoban, M. T., Lipson, S. K., Zhou, S., & Eisenberg, D. (2020). More than inconvenienced: the unique needs of U.S. college students during the COVID-19 pandemic. Health Education & Behavior, 1–6. Retrieved from

From the Abstract:
"U.S. college students are a distinct population facing major challenges due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Before the pandemic, students were already experiencing substantial mental health concerns, putting both their health and academic success in jeopardy. College students now face increasing housing and food insecurity, financial hardships, a lack of social connectedness and sense of belonging, uncertainty about the future, and access issues that impede their academic performance and well-being. There is also reason to believe that COVID-19 is exacerbating inequalities for students of color and low-income students. We provide several recommendations for institutions of higher education to mitigate these obstacles, including engaging in data-driven decision making, delivering clear and informative messaging to students, prioritizing and expanding student support services, and using an equity framework to guide all processes."

Means, B., & Neisler, J. (2020). Unmasking inequality: STEM course experiences during the COVID-19 pandemic. Digital Promise Global. Retrieved from

From the Abstract:
"This report describes the experiences of over 600 undergraduates who were taking STEM courses with in-person class meetings that had to shift to remote instruction in spring 2020 because of COVID-19. Internet connectivity issues were serious enough to interfere with students’ ability to attend or participate in their STEM course at least occasionally for 46% of students, with 15% of students experiencing such problems often or very often. A large majority of survey respondents reported some difficulty with staying motivated to work on their STEM courses after they moved online, with 45% characterizing motivation as a major problem. A majority of STEM students also reported having problems knowing where to get help with the course content after it went online, finding a quiet place to work on the course, and fitting the course in with other family or home responsibilities. Overall, students who reported experiencing a greater number of major challenges with continuing their course after it went online expressed lower levels of satisfaction with their course after COVID-19. An exception to this general pattern, though, was found for students from minoritized race/ethnicity groups, females, and lower-income students. Despite experiencing more challenges than other students did with respect to continuing their STEM courses remotely, these students were more likely to rate the quality of their experiences when their STEM course was online as just as good as, or even better than, when the course was meeting in person."

Meeter, M., Bele, T., den Hartogh, C., Bakker, T., de Vries, R. E., & Plak, S. (2020). College students’ motivation and study results after COVID-19 stay-at-home orders. Retrieved from

From the Abstract:
"Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, many institutions of higher education had to close their campuses and shift to online education. Here, we investigate how stay-at-home orders impacted students. We investigated results obtained by 15,125 bachelor students at a large Dutch research university during a semester in which the campus was closed and all education had shifted online. Moreover, we surveyed 166 students of the bachelor of psychology program of the same university. Results showed that students rated online education as less satisfactory than campus-based education, and rated their own motivation as having gone down. This was reflected in a lower time investment: lectures and small-group meetings were attended less frequently, and student estimates of hours studied went down. Lower motivation predicted this drop in effort. Moreover, a drop in motivation was related to fewer credits being obtained during stay-at-home orders. However, on average students reported obtaining slightly more credits than before, which was indeed found in an analysis of administered credits. In a qualitative analysis of student comments, it was found that students missed social interactions, but reported being much more efficient during online education. It is concluded that whereas student satisfaction and motivation dropped during the shift to online education, increased efficiency meant results were not lower than they would normally have been."


Keywords and Search Strings: The following keywords, subject headings, and search strings were used to search reference databases and other sources: "Learning loss", "Academic progress", "Academic impact", "Academic success", "Covid-19" OR "coronavirus", ("community colleges" OR "college" OR "universities" OR "colleges" OR "university" OR "postsecondary" OR "post-secondary" OR "higher education").

Databases and Resources: We searched ERIC for relevant resources. ERIC is a free online library of more than 1.6 million citations of education research sponsored by the Institute of Education Sciences (IES). Additionally, we searched Google Scholar and EBSCO databases (Academic Search Premier, Education Research Complete, and Professional Development Collection).

Reference Search and Selection Criteria

When we were searching and reviewing resources, we considered the following criteria:

Date of publications: This search and review included references and resources published in the last 10 years.

Search priorities of reference sources: Search priority was given to study reports, briefs, and other documents that are published and/or reviewed by IES and other federal or federally funded organizations, as well as academic databases, including ERIC, EBSCO databases, and Google Scholar.

Methodology: The following methodological priorities/considerations were given in the review and selection of the references:

  • Study types: randomized control trials, quasi experiments, surveys, descriptive data analyses, literature reviews, and policy briefs, generally in this order
  • Target population and samples: representativeness of the target population, sample size, and whether participants volunteered or were randomly selected
  • Study duration
  • Limitations and generalizability of the findings and conclusions

This memorandum is one in a series of quick-turnaround responses to specific questions posed by stakeholders in Alaska, Idaho, Montana, Oregon, and Washington, which is served by the Regional Educational Laboratory (REL) Northwest. It was prepared under Contract ED-IES-17-C-0009 by REL Northwest, administered by Education Northwest. The content does not necessarily reflect the views or policies of IES or the U.S. Department of Education, nor does mention of trade names, commercial products, or organizations imply endorsement by the U.S. Government.