New Study Suggests a Way to Reduce “On the Job” Learning for New Teachers

Audrey Breen

New teachers often have to learn many classroom skills “on the job,” even after completing extensive training in teacher preparation programs. However, a new study suggests that pairing coaching with simulation-based teaching practice sessions boosts students’ skills in classroom management, potentially reducing the amount of “on the job” learning during their first-year teaching.

“The first year of teaching is incredibly stressful, as teachers have to develop a whole range of skills and knowledge in busy, complex classrooms,” said Julie Cohen, assistant professor of education at the University of Virginia Curry School of Education and Human Development. “We know this contributes to high rates of teacher attrition, as well as negative outcomes for kids. We need to do more in pre-service programs to better prepare teachers to feel ready when they enter classrooms.”

According to Cohen and Vivian Wong, associate professor of education at the Curry School, students who participated in coaching alongside their simulated teaching practice sessions had a larger improvement on classroom management skills relative to those who only reflected on their practice sessions. Cohen and Wong led the study, along with Anandita Krishnamachari, a doctoral student at the Curry School, and Rebekah Berlin, a graduate of the Curry School.

“These findings are exciting because we have limited evidence of what elements of teacher preparation programs directly translate to improved teaching skills,” said Cohen.

According to the researchers, stress is exacerbated when early career teachers lack skills for effective classroom management, often resulting in burnout or even teachers leaving the profession. One purpose of this study was to identify how much of this on-the-job skill development can be pushed back into the teachers’ course of study prior to employment.

The study followed 105 students studying to become teachers who, as part of their studies, utilized a virtual classroom simulation to teach a classroom of students. These virtual students are animated by actors in real time and can respond and react to the pre-service teacher’s actions during their practice lesson.

The simulators are being used across nearly a hundred teacher preparation programs around the country, but there is little systematic research into how to maximize their impact on preservice teachers’ learning. The Curry School is, however, the first school in the country to implement a standardized set of classroom simulations across its teacher preparation program, and to evaluate the types of supports that are needed for preservice teachers to learn in virtual environments.

“This study demonstrates that practice sessions in the simulation setting was not enough to improve classroom management skills,” Wong said. “What was needed was practice opportunities with coaching from master educators for preservice teachers to improve. This flies in the face of a mantra in teacher education that ‘practice makes perfect.’”

The coaches working with the pre-service teachers were Curry School doctoral students, many of whom had worked as coaches or administrators for many years. The study provided an opportunity for them to apply those skills in the teacher education program.

The researchers developed a set of skill progressions for each simulation. The coaches provided the pre-service teachers with concrete and specific feedback about how they were performing on a specific skill and clear strategies for how to improve. Coaches also ended their sessions with some role-play, allowing the candidates an opportunity to try out the techniques and feel how they worked.

One focus of the simulation exercises was improved classroom management. According to Cohen and Wong, research makes clear that organized and productive classrooms are essential in supporting kids’ learning. And yet, study after study has suggested that new teachers struggle the most with classroom management. 

“Teacher preparation programs often short change these skills in coursework, thinking that candidates will develop them in student teaching,” Cohen said. “But mentor teachers do not always demonstrate strong management skills themselves and are not always trained to provide coaching to our candidates. We wanted to see if we could use our time in the university setting to rapidly improve these skills.”

Because it was possible to standardize the simulation experience for all of the teachers, the researchers could directly compare the group of students who received coaching to the one that did not. Cohen and Wong saw very clear distinctions between the two.

“A surprising finding for us was that the candidates who did not receive coaching, actually saw the same student behavior as their peers but identified it as increasingly problematic and warranting of disciplinary action like suspension,” Cohen said. “Those who were coached did not.”

Given the prevalence of inequitable discipline practices around the country, the researchers were excited to have some early evidence that coaching might ultimately help mitigate that.

 According to the researchers, this is the first step in a broader program of research designed to understand how to maximize the effectiveness and efficiency of practice experiences in teacher preparation. This work suggests that coaching is a key ingredient in that developmental trajectory.

“These results also indicate that it is possible to generate rigorous causal evidence about best practices for preparing pre-service teachers to be effective educators,” Wong said.

The researchers are now taking this study on the road and are working with a range of diverse teacher preparation programs to study whether these findings replicate in different preparation contexts.

“We are now trying to learn more about whether certain skills develop more quickly for certain candidates, so we can develop more evidence-based approaches to teacher education at scale” Cohen said.

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