What Are Learning Gaps?

What are Learning Gaps?
Learning gaps are gaps in student learning created when teaching and learning moves from one concept to the next before a student has mastered the prior skill.

Have you heard the debate about which is better, measuring student mastery or measuring student growth? Of course you have. The argument has been around for decades. The answer is; both. Educators are responsible for moving students to mastery, which includes showing growth throughout the school year and from one year to the next. The practice of measuring student growth exists specifically because of learning gaps.

Learning gaps are gaps in student learning created when teaching and learning moves from one concept to the next before a student has mastered the prior skill. For example, a third grader will need to have mastery of place value in order to learn rounding numbers. If the class has 6 students who do not have conceptual understanding of place value, but the class moves on to the lesson on rounding numbers anyway, you now have a population of students with an authentic learning gap.

It is easy to see how learning gaps are progressive in nature, as the academic standards are designed to build upon prior learning. Each new concept assumes mastery of certain prerequisite skills. For example, a student without a conceptual understanding of fact & opinion would have a learning gap that would preclude him from being able to evaluate if the author of a news article has provided relevant evidence to support her claims.

As the practice of ability grouping became less popular, the diversity of learners in a single classroom has fed the development of more and greater learning gaps. Students learn by different means and at different pacing, yet teachers are charged with providing instruction en mass, regardless of the diversity of learners present. Best practices provide that the teacher is to move forward with instruction when the majority of students are ready.

To make the matter more complex, learning gaps are compounded over time making it very difficult to identify what the primary challenge is. As an example we can revisit our place value example. Imagine our student showing difficulty performing rounding estimation to evaluate the accuracy of a multi-digit addition problem. Here are the following areas that could be the problem;

  • Miscalculation in finding the original sum
  • Misreading what they were asked to determine
  • Understanding how to round to the nearest thousand
  • Understanding what to do with remaining values when rounding up
  • Understanding what we mean when we refer to the thousands place

It is easy to see how elusive the intervention target can be in this scenario. It is also apparent how many steps-to-learning exist that can “trip up” a student in showing mastery of a single standard. See, Techniques For Identifying Learning Gaps.

Referring to various types of learning gaps is a misnomer created when learning gaps are conflated with other gaps. Sharing a common language for what we mean when we speak of learning gaps will enable educators to collectively move toward developing effective methods of closing those gaps.

To learn how to close these gaps see, Closing the Learning Gaps in English Language Arts and Closing the Learning Gaps in Reading.

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About Jackie Hardiesty

Jackie is a teaching and learning consultant and founder of Edify Consulting. She is a former Director of STEM Integration, Principal and former teacher.