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Learning trajectories: A practical tool for tracking learning and taking action

Learning trajectories: A practical tool for tracking learning and taking action

By Rastee Chaudhry, Jason Silberstein, and Julius Atuhurra (RISE Programme) and Adedeji Adeniran, Thelma Obiakor, and Sixtus Onyekwere (Centre for the Study of the Economies in Africa)

Learning trajectories are graphs that show how many children achieve a certain level of minimum proficiency at each grade. While learning trajectories have previously been used for research, two new efforts show that they can also serve as practical tools to analyse the learning crisis and take informed action.

First, the Research on Improving Systems of Education (RISE) Programme, in partnership with the GEM Report, have created a webpage offering a one-stop resource on learning trajectories. This webpage introduces learning trajectories and what they offer through a series of interactive data visualisations and a data explorer which allows users to build and analyse their own learning trajectories. Second, RISE and the Centre for the Study of the Economies of Africa (CSEA) have partnered to train around 75 policymakers and government officials in West Africa on the use of learning trajectories for informed policymaking.

An online tool that makes learning trajectories easily accessible

This online tool, which shows the learning trajectories for 23 low- and lower-middle-income countries is part of the SCOPE website and was launched at the ADEA 2022 Triennale. It shows the percentage of children in each grade who have mastered foundational reading or mathematics skills, typically at grade 2 or 3 level, which roughly correspond to Sustainable Development Goal indicator 4.1.1a.


Unlike conventional ways of assessing learning, which measure skills students have acquired at a certain point in time (e.g., end of primary school), learning trajectories track how many children achieve a minimum standard at each grade to offer key insights into the process of learning.

What are the key insights from these trajectories?

  • The pace of foundational learning is far too slow in the early grades of school and persists through primary education. Children’s actual pace of learning quickly falls behind the pace set by the curriculum.
  • There is a lot of variation between countries. There are many factors that impact learning outcomes and poor countries can still improve foundational learning significantly.

The tool simulates the impact of pursuing different high-level policy agendas in different countries. The first simulation compares the impact of access-oriented policies (green dotted line), and learning-oriented policies (yellow dotted line).

It shows that:

  • Even if all children were in school, too little improvement would be made in learning outcomes unless we consider what is happening in the classroom.
  • Increasing learning per grade closes a significant portion of the gap between higher- and lower- performing education systems.
  • Successful education systems must place greater emphasis on how much children are learning in each year they spend in school (see #FromSchoolToLearning).

The second simulation compares the impact of equity-oriented policies. It shows that while policies aimed at increasing equity are important, they will do little to resolve the learning crisis.

Users can create their own trajectories on the SCOPE website and run policy simulations using actual data for countries of their choice. The data explorer has data on foundational reading and mathematics for 31 countries and 6 demographic groups per country (rich/ poor, boys/girls, urban/rural), sourced from the UNICEF Multiple Indicator Cluster Survey. Bespoke graphs and simulations can be exported as images or datasets and shared on social media.

Training policymakers and government officials on learning trajectories in West Africa

Over the past year, researchers from RISE and CSEA have implemented three iterations of a capacity development training based on learning trajectories, twice in Abuja and once in Accra. Each training had around 25 participants, which included government officials, school administrators, teachers, and education NGO practitioners. The two-day training focused on an overview of the global learning crisis, the host country context, learning trajectories and their use, and two tools:

  • the Pedagogical Production Function (PPF) tool, which simulates how many children, on average, reach a certain skill level by grade; and
  • the Surveys of Enacted Curriculum (SEC) tool, which measures misalignment between three core educational components – curriculum, assessments and instruction – and describes how this can cause low learning.

Learning trajectories can support non-researchers in better understanding the learning crisis and in informing policy design. The training has:

  1. Enriched participants understanding of the strengths and weaknesses of available learning assessment data. Perhaps the most profound insight was the realisation by most participants of the inadequacies of high-stakes assessments, which most had previously considered a gold standard in tracking progress within an education system. While high-stakes assessments tend to focus attention on more advanced skills at transitional points at the end of primary or secondary school, learning trajectories highlight the importance of measuring learning at the foundational level earlier in school when, in most cases, learning deficiencies take root and grow. Participants observed that high-stakes assessments placed an overemphasis on certification, which encouraged vices such as cheating and other forms of exam malpractice.

“I would improve on my formative assessment in my school and capture data to support any deductions we will be making henceforth about the extent of learning that is taking place.” – School administrator from Nigeria


“Modelling helps provide a better graphical representation of real issues or pertinent situations. In this regard, policymakers and influencers could make meaning and be armed with informed backgrounds in order to make needful informed sessions.”  – Policymaker from Ghana


  1. Contributed towards bridging the research and policy gap. The training enabled participants to have an informed conversation about learning assessment data and system reform. It enhanced their understanding of how to prioritise policy questions and better communicate their research findings. For policymakers, understanding learning trajectories and related tools could increase the use of evidence and data for education policy analysis.

“Lessons from the training will help me to contribute to policy issues on how to balance access and learning outcomes through curriculum development.”  – Policymaker from Nigeria


“The tools will help me and my institution collect data for education interventions and analysis. I learnt that there is a need to pay attention to learning achievement rather than years of schooling.”  – Policymaker from Ghana


  1. Suggested future opportunities to use learning trajectories at sub-national levels. For example, procurement of instructional materials that are well-matched to learners’ current skill levels is critical for improving learning in many developing countries. Learning trajectories make obvious the skill levels of a cohort, improving the chances of procuring well-aligned materials that are pitched at the right level to support the learning process. Using school or district-level learning trajectories (rather than aggregated test scores) to report children’s achievement levels also has potential for helping teachers align instruction to the level of the child by making it easier to identify, group and design relevant instruction for children who have not attained the expected foundational (or other) skill levels before they progress to more advanced content.

To learn more about learning trajectories, the new online tool, and the different use cases of learning trajectories, join an upcoming webinar by GEM and RISE on December 6th 2022.”