Evidence for Learning’s rapid response to Covid-19
In the whirlwind of the Covid-19 crisis’ impact on the Australian education system, Evidence for Learning (E4L) has been providing evidence-based advice to teachers to help deliver effective home-supported learning and mitigate the crisis’ effects on students.
The education sector response to the Covid-19 pandemic represents one of the most significant and rapid shifts in the delivery of schooling for the whole country since the Second World War.
When school grounds closed suddenly, teachers, school leaders, parents, carers and students needed to quickly adapt. In some cases, teachers had less than a week-and-a-half to prepare for the online delivery of classes for the next term.
Evidence for Learning (E4L), true to its role as an evidence broker, promptly recognised the need to provide impartial, evidence-based guidance for schools and educators. The team, comprising teachers, academics, and parents, ourselves was acutely aware of the challenge facing these groups during this extraordinary time and were well placed to help answer the question everyone was asking ‘how do we make remote learning effective?’
Students experiencing disadvantage stood to emerge from any prolonged period away from school further behind their peers. The team began considering specific ways to support those students, not just while they were learning from home, but also when they returned to the classroom.
A lack of evidence on effective remote learning support
As news of school closures began to spread, teachers were inundated with information. Social media and email inboxes flooded with suggestions of best practice for running an online classroom, engaging with families and promoting student engagement. What was concerning though, was a lack of evidence-based advice on these topics. Suggestions were well meaning but largely based on opinion or vested interest.
E4L was uniquely placed to provide the lightning-fast, evidence-based advice that teachers were looking for during the first few weeks of the global pandemic.
E4L, a venture incubated within SVA, has been developing global partnerships in education and sharing the best evidence on what works in classrooms with teachers and school leaders since 2015.
With a track record of building evidence and sharing that knowledge – at no cost and in plain English summaries – E4L has enabled educators to easily compare and assess the relative impact and costs of education approaches so that they can make the best decisions for their school communities.
Because of this work, E4L was uniquely placed to provide the lightning-fast, evidence-based advice that teachers were looking for during the first few weeks of the global pandemic.
We took a two-part approach to producing worthwhile knowledge on the Covid-19 response. We:
- Summarised the existing evidence on traditional learning environments that could be applied to home-supported learning; and
- Worked with our partners to produce a rapid review of the global evidence on remote and online learning to inform school and systems plans.
Using evidence from traditional learning environments to inform best-practice at home
When school closures were announced teachers needed guidance on how to deliver school-led but home-supported learning, and they needed it yesterday. By March 31, E4L had created resources that educators could use as they planned for the home-supported learning being delivered by their school. These resources were built from sound evidence of what is effective in other contexts, but were produced to give some guidance for educators as they wrestled with new teaching challenges created by Covid-19.
This was exactly the kind of practical guidance teachers were looking for and could use in their advice to families.
For example, there is solid evidence on good ways to use teaching assistants or learning support officers to increase learning. Much of this knowledge can be used to describe some new roles and duties for parents and carers during Covid-19. This was exactly the kind of practical guidance teachers were looking for and could use in their advice to families.
The guidance recommends ‘using parents to supplement what teachers do, not replace them’ and helps schools set expectations of what role parents should play during home-based learning. Parents can best assist their child’s learning by encouraging them to be comfortable taking risks, providing support and a positive learning environment, and ensuring students take responsibility for their own learning.
Rapidly reviewing the existing evidence for online and remote learning
E4L also set about supporting the UK-based Education Endowment Foundation’s (EEF) global effort to systematically gather the evidence on online and remote learning in schools. The EEF, with help from its partners around the world, conducted a rapid review of the global evidence, reviewing 65 meta-analyses (with more than 3,000 studies) on relevant approaches which may combine remote, online and in-person classroom teaching.
In four weeks – incredibly fast for a comprehensive, systematic evidence review – educators and policy-makers had the benefit of a free and accessible summary of practices that could be used to support and improve learning for students who are not in classrooms.
Students who have already developed strategies that support working independently such as metacognitive strategies, will find the shift to home-supported learning smoother than others.
The report considers five key topics of general remote teaching and learning; blended learning; computer-supported collaborative learning; computer assisted instruction; and educational games. It reaches the following conclusions:
- Teaching quality is more important than how lessons are delivered. Whether teaching is done via video, a pre-recorded explanation or is live in a classroom, the evidence shows that a positive outcome can be achieved in each of these modes if the effective elements of teaching are maintained. It highlights that clear explanations, scaffolding, and feedback are more important than the actual mode of delivery as well as instruction that is delivered at the right level for the student.
- Access to technology is critical, but not enough. The evidence shows that technology gaps are a huge problem for students experiencing disadvantage. It’s not just about access (only 68% of children aged between 5 and 14 can access the internet at home1), but that both students and teachers have good guidance on the use of platforms and technical support to resolve issues quickly.
- Peer interactions matter to quality learning. Encouraging good peer-to-peer learning in remote and online learning is required. Multiple reviews highlight the importance of peer interaction during remote learning, as a way to motivate students and improve outcomes. Across the studies reviewed, a range of strategies were explored, including peer marking and feedback and opportunities for real-time discussions of content. One of the challenges identified was that many of the studies included in the evidence review focus on older students (18 years plus in further and tertiary education) and more work is needed on what’s effective peer-to-peer online learning for younger learners.
- Support students to work independently. One of the virtues of the current challenge is that multiple reviews identify the value of strategies supporting independent work. Prompting students to reflect on their work or to consider the strategies they will use if they get stuck have been highlighted as particularly valuable. Students who have already developed strategies that support working independently such as metacognitive strategies, will find the shift to home-supported learning smoother than others. Students with less supervision need better strategies when they encounter a problem or task they can’t complete. Wider evidence related to metacognition and self-regulation suggests that students experiencing disadvantage are likely to benefit more from explicit support to help them work independently. It is crucial that the needs of vulnerable groups are not overlooked.
- Different approaches are needed for different students and different skills. No one student is the same. The evidence review shows approaches to remote learning vary widely and have different strengths and weaknesses. Teachers should be supported to consider which approaches are best suited to the content they are teaching and the age of their students.
E4L has produced an Australian commentary summarising the key findings of the review and raises considerations for our context.
Understanding and mitigating the impact of Covid-19 on Australian students
With students heading back to classroom-based learning around Australia, E4L’s focus shifted to understanding and mitigating the impact of Covid-19 on vulnerable students. For many students experiencing disadvantage, schools are often the safest, most productive places in their lives. A report into Covid-19’s effects on these students from the University of Tasmania estimates that nearly half of Australian children and young people are at risk of adverse effects on their educational, health, and wellbeing outcomes by being physically disconnected from school.2 This is because many families lack the physical spaces, technology, and other resources to support learning at home.
Early estimates of the Covid-19 disruption on students suggest at least one-month learning loss for all students.
Early estimates of the Covid-19 disruption on students suggest at least one-month learning loss for all students.3 However, the gap between students experiencing disadvantage and their peers increases up to three months. That’s roughly the same amount of learning loss associated when students repeat a year, according to our Teaching & Learning Toolkit. It also increases the risk of students disengaging from school when they do return to classroom-based learning because of these potential additional risks:
Challenges in learning from home
- Lack of basic materials, digital resources and capabilities.
- Parents that cannot support home learning.
- Not being provided with learning adjustments suited to learning from home.
Health and wellbeing risks
- Mental health concerns including increased anxiety.
- Physical health concerns from less physical activity.
- Food insecurity if meals cannot be accessed through the school.
- Difficulty accessing health, wellbeing and family support services.
- Increases risk of abuse, violence and inadequate care.
- Absence of the routine and consistency that schools provide.
As part of our work to understand and mitigate the pandemic’s impact on students E4L is examining how to identify students who might be at risk of disengagement from school, and get them additional support before this occurs. This work includes identifying the most relevant indicators of disengagement during the pandemic and some suggested steps schools can take to support these students during this time.
Indicators of student disengagement to use during Covid-19:
- Poor results from assessment tasks or a lack of interest or confidence in learning tasks.
- Poor attendance or being absent from, or distracted, anxious or unresponsive in online forums or virtual check-ins.
- Poor engagement in learning tasks.
- Serious behaviour incidents or signs of negative and anti-social behaviour. This might include drug or alcohol use.
- No virtual connection with any adult in the school or an unwillingness to ask for assistance.
There are also several demographic factors which were among the strongest student-level predictors of disengagement. These include students with:
- A diagnosed mental health issue or signs of anxiety, lethargy, frustration, and other indicators of poor social and emotional wellbeing.
- Students with disability, either diagnosed or undiagnosed.
- Those from a non-English speaking background, including international students.
- Teenage parents or those with informal caring responsibilities.
How to support students at risk of disengagement
There is less robust evidence on effective interventions for students at risk of disengagement when compared to the predictors of disengagement, particularly in Australian school settings.4 However pandemic and disaster-related literature suggests that as part of the recovery during the transition back to school, the following should be prioritised in order to support students at risk of disengagement.
- Provide a safe learning environment by following health and hygiene recommendations and return to a routine to keep things as ‘normal as possible’ to promote a sense of safety and security.
- Assess progress of students on return to school sites using reliable formative assessment tools and implement targeted learning interventions to mitigate the impact of learning losses.
- Support student wellbeing, particularly for those students who may be experiencing emotional distress from the pandemic, social isolation from friends, poor nutrition, or a lack of physical activity.
- Support the wellbeing of teachers and families, particularly those experiencing increased levels of stress due to financial stress, health-related concerns, increased work and household loads.
While Covid-19 has been an unprecedented disruption to the lives of education leaders, teachers, students and parents, a commitment to evidence-based approaches to mitigate the impact of this disruption will go a long way to ensuring learning loss is limited, which is particularly important for those students experiencing vulnerability.
For more information, contact Matt Deeble on firstname.lastname@example.org
1 Schools are moving online but not all children start out digitally equal, Mar 2020, The Conversation
2 Learning at home during Covid-19: Effects on vulnerable young Australians, April 2020, Peter Underwood Centre, University of Tasmania
3 Disadvantaged students may have lost 1 month of learning during Covid-19 shutdown. But the government can fix it, June 2020, The Conversation
4 Rickinson, M., Kunstler, B. & Salisbury, M. (2018). Insights for Early Action Literature Review. Melbourne: Bastow Institute of Educational Leadership, Victorian Department of Education and Training