Although there’s wide variation in teacher effectiveness, research shows that educators can learn from their colleagues and in supportive professional environments. Nearly all such research looks at year-to-year improvements. But could teachers also improve over the short term by doing what many of them, particularly at the middle and high school levels, do every day—that is, teaching the same material multiple times to different classes of students? Or could the tedium of such concentrated repetition lead to instructor burnout and declines in both teacher and student performance? A new working paper from the journal Education Finance and Policy digs into these questions.
The study was conducted in the Netherlands at a university business school, so there’s no claim of generalizability to an American K–12 context. But the teaching repetition model under study is not that far removed from the typical workload of American middle and high school teachers. And as this new study is only the second randomized controlled trial of the effects of teaching repetition ever conducted, its findings are worth a look.
Analysts observe 731 different instructors who vary in seniority from postdocs to full professors and each instructor teaches, on average, 2.5 sections of each course over six school years from 2009–10 to 2014–15. Thus, the sample includes around 7,300 sections. Of those, 42 percent are an instructor’s first section for a given course in the day. Thirty-three percent, 19 percent, and 8 percent are an instructor’s second, third, and fourth sections, respectively. This is the variation they exploit to estimate the impact of teaching repetition. Specifically, they are interested in four outcomes: a student’s final grade, whether they dropped out of the course, students’ evaluations of the instructor, and students’ self-reported hours per week they studied for the course.
Students are randomly assigned to sections within a course conditional on scheduling conflicts, which arise for about 5 percent of student-course registrations. Because the type of instructor and the course subject are likely to impact outcomes, the study compares student outcomes within instructor-course combinations, with the main analysis relying on comparisons between students in an instructor’s later sections of a course to their peers in the first section that have the same course plan. The effect of this is to control for the times that students take the course, so that time-of-day effects are not mistaken for repetition effects.
The headline is that the researchers find little to no impact for any of the outcomes. In terms of student grades, the estimates for an instructor’s first section relative to their third and fourth sections is statistically insignificant. There are also small and insignificant effects on teaching repetition for the probability of students dropping the course. Likewise, there’s little evidence that teaching repetition leads to better teaching evaluations, nor are there significant differences in self-reported study time related to teaching repetition. When they look at impacts by prior teaching experience, researchers also find just tiny differences, such that inexperienced instructors are not benefitting from teaching repetition compared to their more experienced colleagues. Finally, they examine whether having a same-day break in between teaching multiple sections changes the pattern of effects they observed in the study—akin to a planning period for American high school teachers—and might make for improvements, but again, no meaningful differences.
The researchers conclude that teaching multiple sections of a course neither helps nor hurts teaching effectiveness. Instructors don’t appear to use their first section as a trial run for later sections and students in earlier sections are not at a disadvantage compared to peers in later sections. Moreover, it appears that if they are going to get better as a result of repetition, they are going to need more than a short break in the same day. They also point out that the courses under study were mainly those where the instructor served as a facilitator—with students working in groups and teachers circulating to assist and provide answers to student questions—so perhaps different patterns would emerge in classes with different formats.
On the one hand, this study should be somewhat encouraging because it indicates that repetition does not lead to tedium-induced performance lags. On the other hand, neither does repetition boost short-term performance. Maybe part of the problem is that teachers aren’t accustomed to making adjustments on the fly in response to what they’re observing in real time. Such a process is nurtured through a building-wide culture of dynamism and adaptability that is deliberate, labor intensive, and yes, likely draining. It is far from the norm in American K–12 schools. But studies like this one remind us that it doesn’t have to be that way. Repetition need not be rote; with more effort, it can be riveting.
SOURCE: Harold E. Cuffe, Jan Feld, and Trevor O’Grady, “Returns to Teaching Repetition – The Effect of Short-term Teaching Experience on Student Outcomes,” Education Finance and Policy Journal (February 27, 2020).