Learning Loss. Academic Skills. Soft Skills. Read or listen to any mainstream news source and you’re likely to hear these phrases bandied about. What does it all mean?

When K-12 schools and colleges shut down in March of 2020, many parents, students and educators thought they were getting an extended spring break. Little did they know that, for some, it was the beginning of more than a year of remote learning. Even when students returned to the classroom, masking and distancing requirements created a less-than-ideal learning environment.

When we talk about learning loss, most people focus on the academic skills, such as reading comprehension, writing, and math. According to a study from NWEA (Northwest Evaluation Association) released in July of this year, younger students have recouped 15-35% of the learning they had lost. That’s the good news. 

Unfortunately, older students haven’t fared nearly as well. According to a July 18, 2022 Chalkbeat article analyzing the NWEA data, seventh and eighth graders made up almost none of the learning they lost. Sadly, eighth graders fell even further behind in math this past year. Results from other tests have varied, with some showing more progress for older students. Still, it’s especially concerning if older students are struggling to catch up, since they have less time left in school.

But, what about the pandemic’s impact on students’ soft skills? According to a May 3, 2021 article from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, motivation, time management, and collaboration skills are being lost. This loss “not only hurts students’ progress in school but will also have repercussions for students finishing school and preparing to enter college or the workforce” in the years to come.

Even before 2020, the Chamber of Commerce heard from many employers who found recent graduates unprepared to succeed in jobs that require collaborating, communicating clearly, and juggling tasks. Post-pandemic, employers are even more concerned. Without the chance to develop the skills that naturally are acquired during in-person learning, high school and college graduates may struggle at work.

College consultants have noticed this loss of soft skills, too. At Discovery College Consulting, we have seen our students struggle with executive functioning (including time management, communication, organization, self-monitoring, self-control and memory) as well as with anxiety and stress. Many students recognize what they may have lost during the pandemic and feel anxious about regaining that learning loss. Parents can help students create routines, schedules, and reminder systems. They can also encourage students to check email and text messages regularly and respond promptly. If this assistance isn’t enough, parents may want to consider having their child work with an executive functioning coach.

And yet, it’s not all gloom and doom. Since the 2021 Chamber of Commerce article, many organizations and students themselves are focusing on the skills they have developed thanks to remote learning. According to a New York Times survey of 300 students in April 2021, “Most students acknowledged that it takes extra effort to stay focused and motivated during online learning, yet many have adjusted to the new way of doing things. … (T)hey also talked about what they have learned this year, including technology skills, global awareness and resilience.”

The European Association for International Education has identified five soft skills that may have increased due to remote learning: self-motivation, adaptability, technical appetite, trust-building, and non-verbal communication.

High school students need to assess their own learning loss. If the pandemic negatively impacted academic skills such as writing and math, perhaps some tutoring is necessary. If students are concerned about soft skills, consider the above list. Are you more or less self-motivated since the pandemic? Did remote learning make you a more or less adaptable student? If you feel you’ve gained soft skills, congratulations. If not, take the opportunity, before you arrive on a college campus, to improve them.