Emergencies remind us that remedial learning is key for low performing students

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Boy in a classroom Remedial learning can help students catch up with their peers and with students around the world. Copyright: Save the Children International

Students in low- and middle-income countries often suffer from high student to teacher ratios in classrooms. This is compounded by social determinants and low education sector capacity, which leads to most of these students falling within the low performing category.

Evidence points to remedial learning as a key intervention for supporting these students in catching up, not only with their peers, but also with students around the world. However, during active school years, this practice has been forgotten in some countries where it is needed most, including Sierra Leone.

The COVID-19 pandemic highlighted and exacerbated many limitations of education around the world, especially in low-income regions. In Sierra Leone, the Ministry of Basic and Senior Secondary Education (MBSSE), in collaboration with long-term donor and development partners including the World Bank, the Global Partnership for Education (GPE), and UNICEF, collaborated to design and align a vast yet strategic array of interventions that would not only cover learning loss due to the pandemic but also build sector resilience.

Recognizing that Sierra Leone already had a high percentage of low performing students before the pandemic, the MBSSE and partners integrated remedial learning interventions to cover learning losses. However, remedial learning should be included routinely in education programs— whether it be before, during, or after emergencies.

Learning circles: The old and the new

Around the world, universities offer undergraduate degrees in which the first 2-3 years are taught via large lectures halls of 300 to 500 students. Because learning outcomes may be limited in this setting, universities provide accompanying course seminars of 15 to 20 students taught by teaching assistants for deeper or remedial learning.

In the case of primary students in low-income countries—where there are often 60 students being taught via lecture-style lessons in cramped classrooms—normalizing remedial learning could provide the same benefit as for those in western universities. Research from the Journal of Education even suggests that remedial learning during non-emergencies teaches students effective ways to spend their leisure time in a secure environment, become socialized, and supports them in increasing their self-confidence, and realizing their potential.

In 2020, the MBSSE and education partners formed the Emergency Education Taskforce (EET) to build and implement a COVID-19 Education Emergency Response Plan. Implementation of the plan was supported by the GPE’s Additional Financing for COVID-19 Response under the Free Education Project, and implemented by an NGO Consortium of seven partners, namely Save the Children International, Concern Worldwide, Humanity & Inclusion (HI), Plan International, Focus 1000, FoRUT and Street Child of Sierra Leone—with the World Bank serving as the grant agent.

The NGO consortium was tasked with designing and delivering an accelerated learning intervention to the most remote schools. They decided on learning circles, a remedial learning program long used by Street Child of Sierra Leone in specific districts. It incorporates an approach known as the “Teaching at the Right Level” or TARL. The consortium drew on their experience to use the methodology to impact foundational numeracy and literacy. The program also provided opportunities for children to learn in a more child-friendly, play-oriented and child-centered approach that focused on delivering remedial learning based on the children’s learning level, abilities, and needs, not their age nor grade-level.

The learning circles have since been adopted as a ‘non-emergency period’ method for remedial learning for least performing students nationwide. Across Sierra Leone’s 16 districts, 1,012 established learning circles, reach 35,000 children. An assessment of their learning outcomes involving 3,612 learners (1,819 boys, 1,793 girls) found that 44% of children were able to read a paragraph at end-line versus 0% at baseline. And 60% of children were able to do 3-digit number operations compared with 2% at baseline.

The MBSSE has recently developed a new Education Sector Plan with the theme of transforming learning for all for the period 2022–2026. The Plan recognizes that urgent attention is required to address learning deficits and gives attention to transforming learning for all by strengthening foundational learning.

Evidence from this project and other stakeholders across the developing world suggests that remedial learning has significant potential to improve literacy and numeracy skills amongst primary school learners. Owing to low learning outcomes in developing countries, governments may want to consider adapting to context and adopt remedial lessons as part of regular learning, and not just in times of emergency.


Kalako Mondiwa

Chief of Party, Save the Children, Sierra Leone

Kelfa Kargbo

Country Director, Street Child Sierra Leone

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