Learning trajectories

Learning trajectories show the skills children gain over time and offer insights into the learning crisis and the impacts of policies on cohort learning.

What are learning trajectories?

Learning trajectories (often referred to as learning profiles) show how much children learn over time in a particular context.  Where most efforts to measure learning focus on what children know at one point in time, usually through an assessment late in the schooling cycle, learning trajectories trace out the process of learning as children progress through school.

A simple illustration of the principle behind learning trajectories

Graph showing learning accumulated over time

What can learning trajectories tell us?

Learning trajectories can help us better understand and visualise the learning crisis. They can also simulate the potential impact of different policies on learning and can inform what education systems should prioritise to address the learning crisis.

Learning trajectories from 18 countries showing how much children are learning over time

Line graph showing highest grade attended across 18 countries and the learning trajectory for each

Some of the most important and consistent messages that emerge from research on learning trajectories are:

  • The learning crisis is worse than we think it is.  Learning trajectories are too flat, meaning that students learn little each year they spend in school.  Far too many students in developing countries will not acquire foundational literacy and numeracy by the time they finish primary or even lower secondary school, and most countries will fall well short of the SDG learning goals. 
  • Children fall behind early and then tend to stay behind, highlighting the need for early intervention that ensures all children master foundational skills.  This is visible in learning trajectories that flatten out early and never recover.  These trajectories illustrate the cumulative nature of learning: foundational literacy and numeracy are the gateway to higher level skills, and can set a country (or individual child) on a steeper overall trajectory.  You can’t fix Grade 9 in Grade 8, improvements are needed in the early primary years to enable later learning.
  • Policy simulations using learning trajectories show that expanding access to schooling will not, on its own, address the learning crisis in most countries. Learning trajectories link schooling and learning, and so are well-suited to modelling how much additional learning we could expect if every child enrolled and stayed in school.  Because children learn relatively little each year in school, spending more years there will not improve learning by very much.  Instead, it is necessary to steepen the learning profile so that children learn more per year in school.  However, the results of these simulations vary according to context, and there is a need to analyse learning trajectories at a country and even sub-national level to determine the uncommon instances where an access agenda could be expected to also deliver on learning. 
  • Policy simulations also show that achieving parity between advantaged and disadvantaged groups within countries will not, on its own, be enough to address the learning crisis.  Learning trajectories are also a useful tool to simulate the consequences of policies focused on closing in-country gaps between groups.  For example, what if girls received just as much schooling as boys, and learned just as much during their years in school?  Even if countries achieved parity between boys and girls, rich and poor, and urban and rural areas, most children would still not gain foundational skills and reach the SDG learning targets (although some countries would benefit more than others).  This is because learning is low across entire education systems such that even the advantaged are not doing that well. This points to the need to focus on absolute rather than relative outcomes, and prioritise changes that shift the entire education system toward producing more learning for the advantaged and disadvantaged alike. 
  • Learning profiles vary dramatically across countries, within countries and even within classrooms.  This variation in how much and when children learn points to the critical importance of aligning the level of instruction with children’s learning levels, either by reorienting curricula to match the rate at which children learn, or through changes to other components of instruction (i.e., teaching materials and assessments).

Key resources

RISE researchers have analysed learning trajectories in more than 50 countries, based on assessments of more than 6 million individuals, using multiple data sources and measures of learning.

An overview of the types of analysis and insights that learning trajectories offer can be found in two RISE Insight Notes - Kaffenberger (2019) and Silberstein (2021).  

A more in-depth review of learning trajectories is a RISE-led Special Issue of the International Journal of Educational Development (IJED) which collects 12 open access papers that explore what learning trajectories can tell us about how to address the global learning crisis.   

For more, see our list of RISE research outputs on learning trajectories.

RISE partnerships on learning trajectories

RISE is working with a number of organisations to develop tools and trainings that will enable education policymakers, advisors, and practitioners to build, analyse, and draw insights from learning trajectories for the contexts they work in. These partners include: 

  • A Nigerian think tank developing a 2-day workshop on learning trajectories for a West African audience
  • A leading international nonprofit aiming to build learning trajectories from their own assessment data and integrate them into their reporting and communications
  • UN agencies seeking to develop new ways to support countries to measure, visualise, and prioritise what to do about the learning crisis