The Hidden Truth About… LEARNING LOSS

Aug 15, 2022

It’s back to school, and the focus this year is squarely on learning loss, the skill gaps in literacy, numeracy, and social development that have resulted from two years of learning interruption and isolation caused by the Covid-19 pandemic. News stories bemoan that students are “starting the year behind,” and this lag particularly impacts low-income and English language learners. It’s a serious equity issue. The hidden truth about learning loss is that the way we respond to it now can actually intensify the issue.

Learning loss is not a new phenomenon; summer learning loss has been well documented, along with other interruptions, which include poor-quality teaching. However, long before the pandemic, educators were wrestling with decreasing student motivation and engagement, resulting in poor academic achievement. What if student motivationis the root cause of learning loss that we should address?

The Paradox of Remediation

Meanwhile, the federal government mandates state testing to track achievement, and state governments like my own have allocated millions of new education dollars for tutoring and extended day services to remediate gaps diagnosed by those tests. Is this the answer?

Ron Berger, teacher, author, and founder of EL Learning doesn’t think so. “If districts focus too much on remediating “learning loss”—holding kids back a grade, categorizing students according to their deficits, and centering lesson plans on catch-up work—the students who have experienced the most trauma and disconnection…will be viewed as deficient, and the inequities in place before and during the pandemic will be further amplified.”

I agree with Ron Berger about this paradox of remediation, and in particular, I want to uncover its devasting effect on students’ intrinsic motivation, that joy in learning where the reward is the pleasure of the work itself.  The truth is that only intrinsic motivation fosters the success in learning and life that we earnestly seek for all of our children.

The ABCs of Motivation

Motivation is literally what moves us, and the answers to that are core to our unique personalities. Related to motivation is engagement, a state of focused attention and effort. Motivation is goal-oriented behavior, and the nature of those goals, and the incentives we use, greatly matter.

There are two main types of motivators, but only one leads to the lifelong success that we want for our children. External, or extrinsic rewards like earning grades and money (also following rules to earn rewards or avoid punishment) do motivate behavior, but the effect is temporary, reward-dependent, and the end result, no more than “compliance.”  Extrinsic rewards have a place, but won’t motivate authentic learning.

In contrast, internal or intrinsic motivation comes through personal interest, choice, and investment in the “work itself,” which becomes its own reward.  Only intrinsic motivation moves us to creative and lasting achievement. When we rely on extrinsic rewards to motivate behavior, the intrinsic or personal motivation actually diminishes, the joy of learning is lost, achievement and engagement decline, or at best stagnate.

The good news is that any school can design instruction to encourage intrinsic motivation through opportunities to develop the ABCs of  autonomy, belonging, and competence.

  • Autonomy: Develop “self-power” through personal choice, independence, and initiative with a minimum of external controls. 
  • Belonging:  Develop a sense of belonging to a community of learners with shared values that recognizes diverse talents and functions interdependently.
  • Competence: Develop self-confidence by facing challenges, overcoming difficulties, advancing personal mastery, and observing how others do these things.

For more about these and other motivation strategies, visit and download the free eBook Five Keys to Motivate Every Learner.

The hidden truth about learning loss is that it is, at the root, a motivation problem. The interruptions students experienced have greatly impacted their sense of autonomy, belonging and competence. Without these ABCs of intrinsic motivation as the long-term aim, reliance on the extrinsic three Ts of testing, tutoring, and time is doomed to further exacerbate inequities. Which will we choose?

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