“Learning Loss” versus “Unfinished Learning” and Why We Use Both

By: | 03/19/2021
Categories: Distance Learning, Instruction, Leadership

In education in particular, labels—what we call things—matter. They set expectations, impact how students see themselves and one another, influence instruction, and more. Because labels carry such weight, Curriculum Associates was very deliberate when it came to choosing to use the term “unfinished learning” instead of “learning loss” when discussing how the COVID-19 pandemic has impacted students’ education progress.

In this post, we will explain why we prefer unfinished learning, which is the term we use in most of our content, including on our blog, in educator support materials, newsletters, and more. Then, we’ll cover why Curriculum Associates occasionally uses learning loss instead of unfinished learning and why we think this linguistic flexibility helps us better support our educator partners.

“Unfinished Learning” Is More Accurate

Unfinished learning is a better description of our circumstances for the past year. Because of school closures, unequal access to technology, and all the other factors that have interrupted learning, students haven’t been able to get to all the learning they needed to for the past year. In other words, they were not able to “finish” the learning they began.

Related Research: How Severe is Unfinished Learning?

It’s worth noting all the learning students weren’t able to reach this past year isn’t the only unfinished learning students have. The reality is this year’s unfinished learning is on top of last year’s unfinished learning, the unfinished learning from the year before that, and so on. Unfortunately, the pandemic is far from the only reason some students are not at grade level.

Perhaps this past year and the extreme circumstances have exacerbated it (and helped shine the light on it), but students have unfinished learning from a variety of reasons that can be just as detrimental to their ability to access grade-level content and to their future academic success. For example, a sixth grader who is reading at a third-grade level doesn’t just have unfinished learning from the 2020–2021 school year.

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“Unfinished” Implies Agency

When something is lost, control over it is often no longer in your hands. However, when something is unfinished it suggests a project that’s not yet complete but can be. Assured of the end results, we’re able to focus on how we can move closer to finished learning. What does finished learning mean in this extended metaphor? Many things—but one of those things is that students are learning at grade level or higher.

Unfinished learning also implies there is some choice in what you choose to finish. It leaves room for strategy in a way learning loss does not. The key is we want to address unfinished learning not just because we want to “check boxes” and have every student complete everything they missed. There simply won’t be enough instruction hours in the school year for that. Rather, educators will need to prioritize learning that will help students access grade-level content and continue a successful trajectory of learning and academic achievement.

“Loss” Discourages Us from Seeing What’s Gained

There’s no sugar-coating that this year has been challenging for educators. A lot has gone wrong, but we know through many, many conversations with teachers and administrators that there are things that have gone well. Some students have flourished in remote-learning environments; teachers have been able to partner with families on new levels; and inequities (such as the digital divide) have been brought to the attention of the American public in ways that make them impossible to not address.

We Prefer to Emphasize the Positive

Plug the word “loss” into Merriam-Webster’s online dictionary and you’ll see a handful of meanings that should not be associated with learning:


“the act of losing possession: DEPRIVATION”

“failure to gain, win, obtain, or utilize”

Students must not be given a message that the progress they’ve made during the past year has been a “failure.” It won’t help them in any way to think of their current learning as being in a state of “destruction” or “ruin” as they strive toward on-grade level learning. In addition to being false, these messages obfuscate and discourage when students and educators alike need clarity and support as they move forward.

Unfinished learning is not meant to downplay the challenges ahead. Nor, by not using “loss” are we denying that things were indeed lost this past year: experiences, opportunities, jobs, and, of course, the many lives tragically lost to COVID-19. Rather, by using “unfinished,” we hope to communicate that learning has “not [been] brought to an end or to the desired final state.”

In education, labels matter. Labels set expectations, impact how students see themselves and one another, influence instruction, and more—which is why #UnfinishedLearning should be used instead of #LearningLoss.

Why and When We’ll Use “Learning Loss”

Learning loss was specifically used in the second federal stimulus funding bill, the Coronavirus Response and Relief Supplemental Appropriations Act (CRRSAA), passed in December 2020. Often referred to as “CARES Act II,” this legislation authorized $54.3 billion more for the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief (ESSER) Fund, now called “ESSER II.”  Learning loss is also being used by many state departments of education and is in the newest COVID-19 relief bill, the American Rescue Plan Act, which President Biden signed on Thursday, March 11, 2021.

When districts apply for ESSER funding through their state, they will need to use language that echoes the language of the legislation. In short, because learning loss is used in ESSER-funding language, districts will use learning loss in their applications for funding.

Thus, Curriculum Associates will use the term learning loss. By doing so, this will make our education partners’ work easier. For example, on our Grants and Funding Center, we use learning loss because we know educators will come to this page looking for information to inform their ESSER grant applications. We also use learning loss on our web page about how our programs are aligned with ESSER funding, because doing so means educators can clearly and quickly see how ESSER funds can be used for our programs. Consistent language also means educators can quote from our materials for their applications without causing confusion.

Final Thoughts

Hopefully I’ve provided some clarity over the course of this post. In closing, I’d like to point readers once again to the Curriculum Associates Grants and Funding Center, which has resources that educators can use to help draft their grant applications and information they can use to satisfy ESSER reporting requirements for our programs.

Teacher and students sitting on the floor.

Grants and Funding Hub

Curriculum Associates’ grants and funding team has assembled resources to help educators and administrators make sense of new federal funding sources, plan for summer school, and understand how our programs meet funding requirements. 

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