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October 27, 2023
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Learning gaps: What are they, and how can tutoring help?

How-to and Tips

Through the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic and into the “new normal,” children and young adults have shown remarkable resiliency and adaptability. They’ve learned to keep up with new technology, classroom arrangements, and unexpected changes.

Still, this doesn’t mean they haven’t been affected negatively.

Although disruptions in school schedules are no longer as common, students across the country continue to struggle to meet educational benchmarks. Learning gaps are prevalent and have an especially marked impact on students from low-income backgrounds and communities of color. These gaps can have long-term effects on a child’s intellectual and personal development, and they can also leave students unprepared for the demands of college or ready to enter the workforce.

The good news is that learning gaps can be closed. Evidence shows that tutoring—with an understanding of what students are dealing with and appropriately targeted interventions—can help students address many and catch up academically.

Learning gaps have many causes

A learning gap is the difference between what a child has learned and what they should have learned by that point in their educational journey. These gaps aren’t specific to pandemic-related closures and interruptions: Students may miss school for other reasons, aren’t as attentive as they could be, or struggle with a specific subject.

Learning gaps vary in kind and degree. For example, a child who misses a day or two of school because of the flu will likely have an easier time catching up than a child who struggles to focus for a semester because they’re dealing with the loss of a parent.

Understanding the why behind a learning gap can help educators make sense of how to address it. Generally, five common types of learning gaps interfere with children’s academic progress and personal growth.

Communication gaps

A child experiencing a communication gap lacks the skills or resources to receive and interpret the information they need. A break in communication can occur for many reasons, such as language or cultural differences between a student and the teacher. When a student is still in the process of learning the primary language of instruction, they’re going to miss out on a lot of content. But even differences in accent or dialect can become problems in comprehension or retention.

Not all communication gaps are language-based. Children struggle to learn when they receive unclear or insufficient instructions. Additionally, students with sensory challenges or learning disabilities may require distinct approaches or more time to keep up with their peers. For example, students who struggle with an auditory processing disorder may not be able to take notes as quickly as expected. This leads them to both miss out on important ideas as they’re being discussed and subsequently lack a vital study resource.

Environmental gaps

Environmental learning gaps were especially prevalent during school closures due to the pandemic. Not all students had dedicated spaces to work or quiet rooms conducive to online learning. Some households lacked reliable or fast internet connections, making it challenging to keep up with a virtual classroom discussion.

It’s not just home environments that can lead to learning gaps. As extreme heat and cold become common, many schools are not equipped to maintain a comfortable—or even safe—temperature. Time spent trying to keep children hydrated and cool during a heatwave, not to mention the difficulty for both teachers and students to focus and work, can cause environmental learning gaps.

Knowledge gaps

A knowledge gap refers to a lack of background information. Learning involves connecting new concepts to background knowledge, so children need to master introductory core concepts in order to develop higher-order concepts and skills.

Experiencing a knowledge gap means more than not knowing a set of words, facts, or dates. Instead, it’s about missing a building block necessary for understanding and mastering new skills. For example, not understanding the mathematical concept of place value means learners can’t take precise measurements in science class or evaluate distances on maps for social studies. This knowledge gap blocks new learning.

Motivation gaps

When a child is unwilling to engage in schoolwork, even when they have the necessary resources and prerequisite knowledge to be successful, they could suffer from a motivational learning gap.

Many children struggle with engagement and motivation, and it isn’t an indication laziness or apathy toward learning. A lack of motivation can be the result of many different causes, and understanding these causes will go a long way in improving engagement.

For example, a student may be unmotivated because something else has captured their interest. They may be anxious about an upcoming sports match, or they might be resistant to taking on new perspective.

In some cases, a student may not value or understand the point of learning a certain topic or subject. It’s common enough for educators to be asked, “When will I use this in real life?” Not having an answer to this question can lead students to perceive learning to be a waste of their time.

Skills gaps

Skills gaps occur when students don’t know how to use the knowledge they have. Practice and ongoing reinforcement of core skills are necessary for learners to apply their abilities.

For example, to effectively create factor trees in math, a student will need to know their multiplication tables. They can memorize the steps to creating a factor tree and even come to the right answer. But lacking multiplication skills makes the process difficult, time-consuming, and much less intuitive.

These types of skills gaps are easy to miss because it often seems like the student knows what to do.

Tutoring closes learning gaps

When it comes to identifying and addressing learning gaps, timing is crucial. If these gaps are left unaddressed, they only become more pronounced over time and make it increasingly difficult for students to stay on track.

While teachers can offer additional support both in and out of class to help students catch up, this often isn’t enough. Schools and districts must also invest in strategies and tools that provide additional support outside the classroom.

Research shows that tutoring programs, particularly ones that allow for substantial individual support for each student, can be valuable investments. Here are some of the reasons why.

Tutoring creates personalized, focused opportunities to learn

One-on-one tutoring fosters a learning climate that allows students to feel comfortable, get encouragement, and work with clear and realistic expectations. These types of tutoring sessions provide time to address specific knowledge and skills gaps without stopping the forward momentum of a classroom curriculum.

Additionally, students who struggle with communication gaps can benefit from one-on-one tutoring. Teachers may not always have the time or resources to explain and review concepts with students who need additional time to process. With a tutor who works with them over time, students can get the time, help, and direction that may not be available to them in the classroom.

Tutoring cultivates strong, healthy learning relationships

While teachers may have classes with hundreds of students, tutors—especially in a one-on-one tutoring relationship—have the time and capacity to focus on one. These connections can be leveraged to help address motivation gaps: When tutors get to know their students, they can connect their passions and interests with the content and skills they need to learn.

Evidence supports the efficacy of high-dosage tutoring

Tutoring is most effective when it occurs frequently in small groups or in a one-on-one context. This type of high-dosage tutoring involves personalized instruction, continual monitoring of knowledge and skill improvement, and building strong relationships between students and trained tutors.

With high-dosage tutoring, a tutor can get to know a student over time. This helps them identify and address specific gaps in knowledge or skill, troubleshoot environmental barriers to learning, and motivate students—whether these gaps are long-standing or have recently developed.

Learning gaps are inevitable—especially after all the disruptions to learning caused by the pandemic. However, the problem becomes compounded when these gaps are left unaddressed for too long.

If you’d like to learn more about how Remind Tutoring can work with your students to overcome learning gaps, you can find more information for schools and districts here.