On the Campus

Emerging Adulthood and Adolescent Life

Summer School and Student Learning

Is summer learning loss only a K-12 phenomenon?

We're now officially into summer and summer-school courses are in session around the country. I took a lot of summer courses back when I was a college student and I've taught several times during summer as a professor. Based on my own experiences and talking to others, I think there are a lot of interesting questions about teaching and learning in summer school at the college level. In fact, there exists a large body of research on students' learning and knowledge retention at different parts of the year -- but almost entirely focused on children in eighth grade and below. There's even a National Summer Learning Association, whose "mission is to connect and equip schools and community organizations to deliver quality summer learning programs to our nation's youth to help close the achievement gap and support healthy development.."

One of the most prominent topics related to education and the calendar is known as "summer learning loss" or the "summer setback." The idea is that, unless students attend summer school, they will be unlikely to "exercise" the skils and knowledge they obtained during the school year and thus the skills and knowledge will be forgotten and fade. Summer learning loss can be observed, for example, through students' scores on standardized tests declining between spring (when they have  received nine solid months of education) and fall.

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Duke University professor Harris Cooper has been a leading researcher on this topic. A 1996 meta-analysis by Cooper and colleagues in Review of Educational Research examining grades K-8 found somewhat greater loss in math than in reading, perhaps because the latter is something more readily done on one's own during the summer. Dr. Cooper was kind enough to respond to an e-mail inquiry from me about the apparent lack of summer-learning-loss studies in college (or even high school) students:

My suspicion is there aren't many [studies during college]. I also suspect the focus is on earlier grades because loss here has implications for [a] student's success in the grades that follow. Once students get to high school, material is less often sequential. To do good in Algebra II you need to remember Algebra I but American Lit doesn't depend on Shakespeare, o[r] vice versa. 

Certainly, some areas of college subject matter depend on sequential accumulation of knowledge and skills. Further, I suspect college professors may expect students to integrate their knowledge across disciplines more so than teachers in earlier grades (when I majored in psychology as an undergraduate at UCLA in the early 1980s, there were several out-of-department prerequisites). In short, I would argue, a college education requires students to keep current in their knowledge, and summer school attendance would facilitate such maintenance. 

College summer-school attendance generally seems to be rising, although in California (and perhaps elsewhere) tight budgets are hindering student access. About a year ago, the Boston Globe ran an article about the increasing popularity of summer school among college students and some of its putative benefits. Practical benefits include a lower tuition in summer than during regular semesters at some institutions and a chance to get ahead in completing one's degree requirements and lighten one's load during the regular semesters. A quote from one student summarizes some of the potential inside-the-classroom advantages of summer school:

"They're strong on discussion, and you don't get that in the regular year. It's more of a deep experience. There are fewer bodies, too. The most I've had in class is 11. It leaves much more time to talk and ask questions. I wish it could always be like this. Also, I'm less likely to slip through the cracks this way.''

On a personal note, one of my strategies as an undergraduate was to take what I considered highly demanding and/or difficult courses -- such as physiological psychology and chemistry lab -- in summer, where I could concentrate fully on them without having any other classes.

Another likely source of growing numbers of summer students is athletic teams. Under rules adopted by the National Collegiate Athletic Association in the 1990s -- first for at-risk student-athletes and later for all of them -- universities can now pay for athletes' summer school. A further development is that incoming athletes can attend summer school before their first fall semester and also get involved with the team's conditioning. Texas Tech football coach Tommy Tuberville was quoted in a Lubbock newspaper article that:

"We try to keep one step ahead in academics, because it's so tough on them during the season... You can use the summer to catch up or gain ground in the academic part. It keeps them all together and keeps them focused on academics and doing running and lifting."

More systematic research at the college level is starting to emerge, driven in part by the North American Association of Summer Sessions, which publishes the academic journal Summer Academe. So now, research on the pedagogy of summer school has its own home. One seemingly useful article I found from the journal presents faculty reports of best practices in summer instruction, which entails coping with compressed/intensive schedules such as meeting five days a week, two hours per class, instead of three hours per week (either Monday-Wednesday-Friday or Tuesday-Thursday) during regular long semesters. Here's a bibliography on compressed-term pedagogy.

The academic research reaches some of the same conclusions as the student quoted in the Boston Globe, namely the importance of summer's small class sizes and opportunity for discussion and interaction between teacher and students, and between students. The continuity of the daily class meetings was also noted in the research. Among the research article's tips to summer school instructors are to plan carefully and cut out some material that might be used in a long semester, if necessary. Placing a higher priority on outcomes (e.g., knowledge, proficiences) one wants students to achieve, rather than inclusion of particular content, can aid in dealing with summer's time constraints, as instructors may realize that their outcome goals can be reached by, say, two class exercises or activities, instead of the usual three.

My perception is that the inherent self-selection in attending summer school yields a more motivated group of students than their summer-skipping counterparts. After all, it takes real dedication to come in five days a week (sometimes at early-morning hours), when there are other things students presumably would rather be doing. To the extent this perception is accurate, that should make things a bit easier on summer instructors and create a beneficial educational experience for all.

Alan Reifman, Ph.D., is a Professor of Human Development and Family Studies at Texas Tech University.

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