I have written several times in the past about how disruption is the enemy of learning and how one of the first principles of course design should be to cushion against possible disruption, for example by making sure that if circumstances require that some portion of the course material be skipped, the subsequent experiences aren’t additionally compromised, allowing one disruption to cascade over the rest of the semester.
Until the other day, however, I hadn’t properly considered that there is an inverse corollary to that rule, that maximizing consistency and continuity beyond the baseline provides an active boost to learning.
Writing at The New York Times, Adam Grant of the Wharton School notes an interesting finding drawn from various studies of education drawn from around the U.S. and even the world: students who had the same teacher twice or more in different grades did better in school.
Essentially, the deeper relationships forged through more time together allowed for teachers to more effectively gear their instruction and support to the individual student. This quantitative finding makes sense at the qualitative level. The more you know about someone, and the stronger relationship you have with them, the better able you are to contextualize specific acts. If you know a student is generally conscientious but is struggling with a new concept, rather than suspecting they may not be doing their work, you can zero in on other causes.
Many instructors have had students who thrived in a class ask if they’re teaching anything else they could take. This is students seeking out this benefit within the structures available to them. I recall this happening to me as a graduate student when I was teaching developmental English (a pass-fail course) where a student who had failed purposefully signed up for my section next semester under the theory that I would best be able to track their progress. The thought hadn’t occurred to me.
The student passed the second time around.
For the years I taught in the communication department at Virginia Tech, I saw the benefit of enhanced consistency and continuity firsthand. I was instructor for a two-semester course (CommSkills) that was essentially first-year writing the first semester and college research and public speaking the second semester. Having the same students over two semesters allowed for much deeper engagement at an individual level. By the second semester, I knew these students and could tell when something was off. I could refer to something we had covered months earlier as a shared reference, and students also were much more likely to seek out aid and support (of all stripes) from each other.
I recall one student who was struggling and was considering plagiarizing as a solution to a time-crunch issue, but instead of making that bad mistake, they had the confidence that coming and talking to me about their problems would be a better choice. (It was.)
After my first year, the instructors for the course also became the academic advisers for any communication majors in the course, extending that relationship even beyond the first year, continuing up until the student chose an emphasis in the department and was assigned to senior faculty. The cohort of instructors was largely consistent as well, with very little turnover. I’d probably still be there if we hadn’t come to Tech for my wife’s three-year residency rather than my career.
At the College of Charleston, I had a chance to teach as part of a first-year “learning community” where all the students in my first-year writing course were also enrolled in the same section of Intro Biology. This was a great help, particularly for students who had entered school with a science degree in their plans (usually premed) but were having other ideas once they got their feet wet in college. Imagine, too, if the same students who persisted in biology could then also take an advanced writing course with me, how quickly they could hit the ground running.
At the Times, Grant observes how in K-12 education, the practice of “looping” teachers so they have the same students more than once doesn’t cost a dime, which is true. While it’s not covered in the article, my guess is that it may be a benefit to teachers as well, giving them the opportunity to experience a change of pace while also moving through these predictable loops.
The challenge in higher ed is greater for a number of reasons. As Timothy Burke observes on Substack, the contingent nature of so much academic labor is perhaps the biggest hurdle. Having a large class of laborers who have no idea if they’re going to be employed year to year and who are primarily used to absorb the burden of courses senior faculty don’t want to teach is not a great way to establish continuity and consistency.
In fact, it’s a recipe for disruption, as the students who I worked with found out when they tried to track me down for recommendation letters only to find that I was no longer employed.
As Burke says, institutions make a big rhetorical fuss about being communities, but how many of them take substantive actions that build communities around learning? Honors colleges seem to fit the bill in some cases, but why are these opportunities reserved for elite students when they would benefit everyone?
The research is very promising, and as with K-12, in terms of dollars, it wouldn’t cost higher ed institutions a penny to give students more opportunities to loop.
What’s stopping us from doing it?
 This principle is part of what led me to frame teaching writing as the development of the writer’s “practice,” the skills, knowledge, attitudes and habits of mind of writers. If I make sure everything is oriented around developing some aspect of the practice—rather than trying to run students through a lockstep sequence—and if something is missed or omitted, the subsequent learning can still continue. This helps also for students who may have different strengths or weaknesses or who may not be progressing as quickly as others. Everyone can still be developing their practices.