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Bradford Research School: Effective Professional Development: Context Specific Repetition

Posted 26th June 2023

This is the final blog in our series on the 14 mechanisms from the EEF’s Effective Professional Development guidance report. You can find the full list at the end of this blog.

There are some things we can do in our classrooms where once is enough, such as explaining a concept. It’s not a thing we have to make habitual because we can plan for it – we’re not going to forget. But there are so many aspects of day to day teaching that can happen multiple times or – if not embedded – happen zero times. How can we go from zero to embedded?

Mechanism 14 gives us a suggestion: Prompting context specific repetition.

​‘Repeating the same action in the classroom, at least twice, can support the embedding of practice.’

Context as cue

In our blog on Mechanism 11 – Providing prompts and cues – we explored the way that we need triggers to enact particular behaviours. People can provide prompts, actions can act as cues, and settings can be particularly useful. Not only can the setting act as a cue, but the fact the action is performed in that setting can help embed the process.

Wood, Witt & Tam (2005) looked at the habits of college students when they changed context. In their conclusion, they write: ​“When people practice an action, they develop associations in memory between the action and aspects of the context in which it typically occurs. With sufficient repetition in stable contexts, behaviour comes to be triggered relatively automatically by these features of the performance context.“

So if we can practice our techniques in the contexts they will be used, we will be more likely to use them in future.

Cost and benefit

One of the benefits of performing a technique more than once is that the costs of the technique are always very clear. But repeating it multiple times gives the opportunity for the benefits to appear.

Let’s suppose that a focus of CPD has been questioning, and what to do when pupils can’t answer the question, or as Andy Tharby and Shaun Allison call it in Making Every Lesson Count, ​‘Rousing the Dead’. They suggest a number of approaches:

  • Give the student the answer you are looking for and ask them to explain how you got there
  • Give them two options and get them to explain which they agree with most
  • Remind them of the facts
  • Rephrase as a comparison
  • Think, pair, share

For a teacher trying to roll this approach out, there are all sorts of reasons why it will be difficult. It’s a sudden change for pupils, and in a classroom where they’ve never been followed up in this way there may well be very little thinking going on; it’s difficult for the teacher to remember all the possible options and then choose the best one. It might not work, and the temptation might be not to try again.

If we can prompt several repetitions of this technique, then it is more likely that the decisions around when to follow up and how to do so will come easier, more likely that the interactions will be successful, and more likely that the pupils actually think. And because of this, it becomes far easier for the teacher to maintain the use of the technique.

Rothman et al (2011) write: ​‘Enough time has passed since the onset of the behavior, so the consequences of the new behavior are now informative. Thus, people begin to form an integrated assessment of the relative costs and benefits afforded by the behavior to determine whether the behavior is worth continuing. To the extent that people conclude they are satisfied with the new behavior, they will choose to sustain the behavior and preserve the gains that have accrued.’

Initiation and maintenance

Cues can help us to initiate the use of a technique. This initiation stage is often easier, when the cue and response are fresh, and the motivation to use them high. Think about all of the times you have left inspired by some CPD, immediately use a technique before slowly forgetting. Our goal is maintenance, moving to a point where the technique is embedded.

Gardner and Rebar (2019) write ​‘This distinction is important from a practical perspective because while people may possess the capability, opportunity, and motivation to initiate behaviour change they often fail to maintain it over time, lapsing back into old patterns of behaviour.’

Performing the technique more than once helps to move beyond the do it once approach.

So when we design CPD, we need enough to make sure the action is initiated, but go beyond to ensure that it’s performed more than once. Instructional coaching is one approach where this is built in. These are the features of effective instructional coaching as outlined by Kraft, Blazar and Hogan (2018):

(a) individualized – coaching sessions are one-on-one;

(b) intensive – coaches and teachers interact at least every couple of weeks;

(c ) sustained – teachers receive coaching over an extended period of time;

(d) context-specific – teachers are coached on their practices within the context of their own classroom; and

(e) focused – coaches work with teachers to engage in deliberate practice of specific skills.

It’s the only way multiple repetitions can happen, but leaders of PD need to ensure that the conditions for this to happen are in place.

Catch up on the rest in this series:

Mechanism 1: Managing cognitive load

Mechanism 2: Revisiting prior learning

Mechanism 3: Setting and agreeing on goals

Mechanism 4: Presenting information from a credible source

Mechanism 5: Providing affirmation and reinforcement after progress

Mechanism 6: Instructing Teachers on How to Perform a Technique

Mechanism 7: Arranging practical social support

Mechanism 8: Modelling Techniques

Mechanism 9: Providing feedback

Mechanism 10: Rehearsing the technique

Mechanism 11: Providing prompts and cues

Mechanism 12: Prompting action planning

Mechanism 13: Encouraging monitoring

Gardner, B., & Rebar, A. Habit Formation and Behavior Change. Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Psychology.

Kraft MA, Blazar D, Hogan D. The Effect of Teacher Coaching on Instruction and Achievement: A Meta-Analysis of the Causal Evidence.

Rothman, A. J., Baldwin, A. S., Hertel, A. W., & Fuglestad, P. T. (2011). Self-regulation and behavior change: Disentangling behavioral initiation and behavioral maintenance.

Wood, W., Tam, L., & Witt, M. G. (2005). Changing circumstances, disrupting habits.