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Children can't recall what they learnt in the previous class

Field report: Children suffer learning loss

Published: Mar. 26, 2021
Updated: Jun. 29, 2023

An extract from a field report by the Azim Premji University on the impact of the coronavirus pandemic on school education


SCHOOL closures due to the COVID-19 pandemic have led to either a complete disconnect from education for the vast majority of children or inadequate alternatives like community-based classes or poor alternatives in the form of online education, including mobile phone-based learning.

One complete academic year has elapsed in this manner, with almost no or little curricular learning in the current class. But this is only one kind of loss of learning. Equally alarming is the widespread phenomenon of ‘forgetting’ by students of learning from the previous class – this is regression in their curricular learning. This includes losing foundational abilities such as reading with understanding and performing addition and multiplication, which they had learnt earlier and become proficient in, and which are the basis of further learning. These foundational abilities are such that their absence will impact not only learning of more complex abilities but also conceptual understanding across subjects.

Thus, this overall loss of learning — loss (regression or forgetting) of what children had learnt in the previous class as well as what they did not get an opportunity to learn in the current class — is going to lead to a cumulative loss over the years, impacting not only the academic performance of children in their school years but also their adult lives. To ensure that this does not happen, multiple strategies must be adopted with rigorous implementation to compensate for this overall loss of learning when schools reopen. 

Our study, undertaken in January 2021, reveals the extent and nature of the ‘forgetting/regression’ kind of learning loss among children in public schools across primary classes because of school closure during the COVID-19 pandemic. The study covered 16,067 children in 1,137 public schools in 45 districts across five states — Chhattisgarh, Karnataka, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Uttarakhand.

It focused on the assessment of four specific abilities each in language and mathematics, across Classes 2 to 6. These four specific abilities for each grade were chosen because they are among the abilities for all subsequent learning — across subjects — and so the loss of any one of these would have very serious consequences for all further learning.

An assessment of the learning levels of children when schools closed as well as of their current status was necessary to understand any such regression. The former was best done through teachers who have been deeply engaged with their learners, and thus had a reliable assessment of children’s abilities when schools closed in March 2020. Therefore, this baseline assessment of children’s learning levels, i.e. where they were assessed on specific abilities in language and mathematics when schools closed, was done based on a comprehensive analysis by the relevant teachers, aided by appropriate assessment tools. All abilities associated with the previous class were not assessed; a few abilities critical for further learning were carefully identified and assessed. These are referred to as specific abilities in the document. ‘End-line’ was the assessment of the same children’s proficiency in these very abilities in January 2021, which was done by administering oral and written tests.

Our key findings are:


92 percent of children on an average have lost at least one specific language ability from the previous year across all classes.

Illustratively, these specific abilities include describing a picture or their experiences orally; reading familiar words; reading with comprehension; writing simple sentences based on a picture.

92 percent of children in Class 2, 89 percent in Class 3, 90 percent in Class 4, 95 percent in Class 5, and 93 percent in Class 6 have lost at least one specific ability from the previous year.


82 percent of children on an average have lost at least one specific mathematical ability from the previous year across all classes.

Illustratively, these specific abilities include identifying single- and two-digit numbers; performing arithmetic operations; using basic arithmetic operations for solving problems; describing 2-D/3-D shapes; reading and drawing inferences from data.

67 percent of children in Class 2, 76 percent in Class 3, 85 percent in Class 4, 89 percent in Class 5, and 89 percent in Class 6 have lost at least one specific ability from the previous year.

The impact of learning loss due to children forgetting what they had learnt earlier is likely to be further compounded if nothing is done to compensate for this loss when schools reopen. Children will be pushed towards more complex learning abilities of the new class they will move to without having the prerequisite foundational abilities. This compounding of learning loss will expectedly be more for students from disadvantaged backgrounds who access the public school system.

It is critical to understand that this learning loss is not limited to public schools. Learning of significant numbers of children in private schools has also been interrupted by the pandemic. Even where private schools have taken the initiative of reaching children through remote modes, very little actual ‘online teaching’ has occurred; mostly, instructions and supplemental resources have been shared. Thus, the issue of learning loss must be addressed for all children across all types of schools and across all classes in the schools.

The principles of access, equity and inclusion that must inform school education are likely to be further tested in these circumstances. We must act now to ensure that the lost academic year as well as the loss of whatever learning children had acquired from the earlier class do not cumulatively impact the long-term prospects of our children.

The extent and nature of learning loss is serious enough to warrant action at all levels. Policy and processes to identify and address this loss are necessary as children return to schools. Supplemental support, whether in the form of bridge courses, extended hours, community-based engagements and appropriate curricular materials to help children gain the foundational abilities when they return to school will be needed.

It follows that teacher capacity to ensure student learning in these unusual circumstances must be in focus, particularly with respect to pedagogy and assessment needed to deal with students at diverse learning levels.  

And, most importantly, the teachers must be given enough time to compensate for both kinds of learning loss — and we must not rush into promoting children to the next class.   


  • Mohd Jalaluddin

    Mohd Jalaluddin - Oct. 5, 2021, 11:41 p.m.

    Thank you for sharing a very important and informative piece of writing. You tried to draw the attention of educational functionaries towards a very important issue which we had not thought of. I hope the high level educational functionaries will pay heed towards the same and would take action as an urgent basis specially for the betterment of learners and for the nation in general.