3 key strategies to combat summer learning loss in math

Donald Spangler

June 13, 2022

Here it comes – the break your students have been itching to start, but the one that makes most teachers nervous. You’ve spent the last year getting your students to master foundational, grade-level math skills, and now summer vacation starts. How can you keep them from forgetting everything they’ve learned throughout the year?

Summer learning loss is a well-documented phenomenon. One study found that the average student lost between 17 percent and 34 percent of the prior year’s learning gains during summer vacation. While some degree of “summer slide” is inevitable, there are steps math teachers can take before, during, and after the summer break to minimize the impact. Here are three strategies to help students retain their math gains over the summer months.

#1: Integrate cumulative review into instruction.

When learning loss occurs, it is often a direct reflection on the quality of the gains students made throughout the school year.

For example, summer slide can be extensive following a year of a unit-based math system, where instruction, practice, and assessment are almost exclusively based on the current unit’s content. Often, students make temporary gains and pass the exam for that unit, then begin to lose those gains as they proceed to the next section, then the school year is usually capped off with a large-scale review before students take a final exam.

Following this methodology, students refresh their memories of skills covered in previous units–just enough to survive the big test–but their tenuous grasp on the content fades over the summer.

I suggest a more impactful approach: Math teachers can build cumulative math practice into their daily lessons, pairing new content with a spiral review of prior concepts, and deliver cumulative assessments to ensure mastery. Following this methodology can help educators reduce the likelihood of summer slide and improve long-term math retention.

Adopting a tool that supports cumulative math practice, like Get More Math, makes it easy for teachers to incorporate spiraled-mixed review into daily instruction. As the school year progresses, Get More Math provides review sessions that are tailored to each student’s specific needs–so teachers can promptly identify and address any gaps in learning.

#2: Encourage students to engage with math every day during the summer.

If students are engaging with math all summer, they’re less likely to forget what they’ve learned. Most educators would agree that practicing math over the summer break may be a tough sell to our students; I approach this by challenging students to review and practice key skills they learned during the prior school year and provide incentives for doing so. Make the experience fun, so that it doesn’t seem like extra work.

In addition, teachers can customize the skills they want each student to practice; for instance, you might ask a student to review skills they’re good at in order to boost their confidence. This confidence boost can encourage students to continue their practice and support their long-term math retention.

#3 Fill in the gaps when students return to school.

We’ve identified what to do before and during the summer break, but what happens when our students return to school and the inevitable summer slide has crept in?

Here’s my trusted prescription: Kick off the school year with simple, accessible, grade-level content. Capture students’ attention with new ideas–make an effort to sustain their early energy and enthusiasm. It’s unrealistic to expect every student to enter your classroom after the summer with no gaps to fill–but identifying and addressing those gaps doesn’t have to happen all at once. Rather, teachers can weave in intermittent gap-filling with as-needed lessons on critical precursor skills.

Encouraging students to engage with math over the summer and addressing the gaps in their knowledge when they return is critical. However, excellent instruction is at the core of long-term gains that can reduce summer learning loss. Students who have opportunities to explore math at the conceptual level and build their own understanding have stronger odds of retaining concepts and skills that persist throughout the summer–and beyond.

Donald Spangler is in his 17th year of teaching algebra and is the math department chair at Lampeter-Strasburg School District in Pennsylvania.