The Science of Learning Blog

June 24, 2020

Stopping and Slowing the COVID Slide: Part 2

BY Martha Burns, PhD

This is the second part in our series on upending the COVID slide. See Part 1 here.

Why Educators Must Harness the Science of Learning

New research suggests that by September, the COVID slide could cause some students to lose months’ worth of academic gains since the end of the last school year. According to a working paper from NWEA, many students could begin classes in the fall having lost up to a third of their progress from the previous year in reading.

Literacy skills are of particular concern because current U.S. government data indicate that, even before the COVID-19 pandemic, two-thirds of fourth-graders had failed to reach in reading skills proficiency.

Kids running uphill

Furthermore, schools in many parts of the country will likely face continued closures to contain the virus. These disruptions will increase the importance of a blended learning model, which combines rigorous educational technology with classroom instruction, for upending the COVID slide. 

Finally, students are also likely to have social and emotional needs that will require attention because of the impact of family job losses, health issues, and months of isolation. 

With so many pressing needs and the deck stacked against all students— but especially against those already facing socioeconomic, cognitive, and social-emotional disparities—educators must harness the science of learning to help students learn as efficiently as possible.

Four More Brain-Based Strategies to Upend the COVID Slide

In Part 1 of this blog series, I reviewed how attention, engagement, reward, and effort are considered key components of successful learning and can be employed to boost academic gains through both conventional and remote instruction.

In this installment, I will discuss four more brain-based educational strategies that educators can implement while simultaneously fostering social-emotional learning support. To this end, I will review the value of setting clear learning objectives to enhance student agency, adopting a growth mindset, providing effective and socially safe feedback, and emphasizing the importance of sleep. Applying these four approaches both remotely and in-person can help your students upend the impact of the COVID slide.

Provide Clear Learning Objectives. In his book, How We Learn: Why Brains Learn Better than Any Machine . . . for Now,  Dr. Stanislas Dehaene, reviews the research showing that students learn best when the purpose of any learning activity is clearly stated and when the educational activities and tasks directly relate to those objectives. When students know why they are leaning specific information, they develop a sense of personal agency and a "can-do" attitude. They think, “Oh, I understand why I am learning this. It adds to what I learned yesterday; I can do that.” Empowering students in this way fosters students' self-management and self-awareness, two competencies in the CASEL framework for SEL.

Dr. Dehaene recommends that, to accomplish the setting of clear objectives during direct instruction, teachers should clearly explain what is expected of the students, with continuous reminders and summaries to maintain their awareness of each lesson's educational goals. An advantage of neuroscience-designed online instruction is that students receive immediate feedback about how they are achieving those objectives during and after each learning session.


Tip #1: Clearly and continuously explain learning objectives.

Tip #2: Implement technology that provides immediate feedback to students' progress on their learning objectives.

Adopt a growth mindset. We know from Dr. Carol Dweck’s research that students are more likely to achieve when they believe that continued learning, not inherent intelligence, makes a person “smart.” Students who tend to achieve higher are those who understand that effort is the path toward mastery; in other words, they know that “practice makes perfect.”

How can teachers instill this growth mindset in their students? Learners need to be encouraged to embrace challenges and persist in the face of setbacks. Over time, they understand challenges as incentives rather than obstacles or deterrents to action. Developing this mindset, however, takes time and patience on the parts of both teachers and students. 

Students will naturally avoid difficult learning situations if they believe their effort will not pay off. For this reason, carefully designed, adaptive, small steps toward mastery of any skill are essential to building confidence and achievement. Individualized instruction is likewise a key to building a growth mindset. Adding online adjunctive educational technology to direct instruction provides each student with an opportunity for this type of individualized, incremental skill mastery. With every successful step, students build confidence in their own learning potential and start to see themselves as what they were all along: smart!


Tip #3: Encourage students to embrace and even chase challenges (and be patient as they learn to do this!).

Tip #4: Provide individualized learning challenges that push, but do not overwhelm, students, whether through a teacher or tutor or by adaptive technology.

Accept and correct mistakes. Dr. Dehaene also emphasizes the importance of mistakes in learning. He cites the Education Endowment Foundation, which determined that the most effective lever for academic progress is the quality of a teacher’s feedback to their students. The research indicates that “errors are not the mark of bad students: making mistakes is an integral part of learning . . . [O]ur brain can adjust its models only when it discovers a discrepancy between what it envisioned and reality.” (How We Learn, p. 237) 

Errors should not be punished. Instead, teachers should correct them quickly with detailed but stress-free, socially safe feedback.  Such feedback is more difficult for teachers to provide during whole-classroom instruction, whereas small group breakout sessions can facilitate that type of feedback.  One of the major advantages of blended learning models is that adjunctive online technological learning sessions allow each student to receive non-judgmental feedback on each individual responses, occurring in the privacy of their own personal online domain.


Tip #5: Dont punish mistakes.

Tip #6: Correct errors quickly, with sufficient details, and in a socially safe environment, made possible by small group breakout sessions (if an instructor provides correction) or by an individualized, online learning module.

Emphasize the importance of sleep. Dr. Dehaene emphasizes that sleep is much more than a rest period. It is absolutely essential for learning. During different sleep cycles, the brain alternates reviewing (tens of times) and consolidating relevant experiences of the day. As such, sleep is an integral part of the algorithm the brain uses to retain and integrate new information. Unfortunately, as educators we have little control over our students’ sleep quality or quantity. But we can constantly remind them and their parents that adequate sleep is crucial and encourage set study, relaxation, and sleep schedules for all of our students.


Tip #7: Teach the scientifically proven importance of sleep.

Tip #8: Encourage consistent schedules.

Coming Soon: Part 3

In the third and final part of this series on upending the COVID slide, I will review the importance of executive function to learning, and how optimizing executive function with intentionally designed ed tech can provide students of all ages the super-boost to learning they need to overcome learning loss.

Martha S. Burns, Ph.D. is Director of Neuroscience Education at Scientific Learning Corporation and Adjunct Associate Professor at Northwestern University.


Davis, T. (2019) 15 Ways to Build Growth Mindset. Psychology Today. Posted Apr 11, 2019

Dehaene, S. (2020) How We Learn: Why Brains Learn Better than Any Machine...for Now. Available at independent bookstores.

Dweck, C. S. (2008). Mindset: The New Psychology of Success. House Digital, Inc. Chicago. Available at Black Pearl Books.

Kuhfeld, M. & Tarasawa, B. (2020) The COVID-19 slide: What summer learning loss can tell us about the potential impact of school closures on student academic achievement. NWEA. Collaborative Brief.

Want to Learn More?

Learn more about how to slow and stop the COVID slide by watching Dr. Martha Burns' webinar, "Upending the COVID Slide with Neuroscience." Watch it on-demand here.

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