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Repetition is the First Principle of All Learning



The deepest "aha's" spring from an encounter and then a return. Repeating the encounter fuses it into one's awareness. One of the biggest mistakes a teacher can make is to forego the return or repetition. The learning process is one of slow engagement with ideas; gradually the engagement builds to a critical mass when the student actually acquires the idea. Repetition matters because it can hasten and deepen the engagement process. If one cares about quality of learning, one should consciously design repetitive engagement into courses and daily teaching. To do this well is harder than it seems. This column summarizes some subtle issues around repetition, and offers suggestions for how to proceed.
April 28, 2000
"Repetition is the First Principle of All Learning"
University of Virginia
Darden Graduate School of Business Administration
We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time
- T.S. Eliot
The Dry Salvages
The deepest "aha's" spring from an encounter and then a return. Repeating the encounter
fuses it into one's awareness. One of the biggest mistakes a teacher can make is to forego
the return or repetition. The learning process is one of slow engagement with ideas;
gradually the engagement builds to a critical mass when the student actually acquires the
idea. Repetition matters because it can hasten and deepen the engagement process. If one
cares about quality of learning, one should consciously design repetitive engagement into
courses and daily teaching. To do this well is harder than it seems.
A decade ago a friend and colleague said, "Repetition is the first principle of all
teaching." I thought he was kidding, for it seemed to me then, as now, that there were
many other better First Principles: mastery of the material, passion for the subject,
empathy for the learning process, energy, and love of student interaction. But he was
actually quite serious. He challenged me to think of all the ways in which I had learned
because someone had restated or revisited a concept that I thought I had learned, but
which yielded a deeper meaning in the new context. Then it struck me that repetition was
primarily important to learning, rather than teaching. If one adopts a student-centered
teaching approach, repetition will be a very important tactic for enhancing learning.
Over the intervening decade, my friend's words have returned to me in discussions about
teaching and course design. Like the protagonist in the movie, "Groundhog Day," I
seemed fated to relive a conversation relentlessly. This has taught me that repetition is
tough to practice. Teachers and program designers are caught between growth in content,
and the fixed or declining program time available. Virtually all business programs are
striving to cover more content in less time. Managers and students are impatient to get
trained quickly. In short, repetition seems in retreat.
The case to be made for building repetition into your teaching is that it supports a
number of highly important educational goods: self-paced discovery, ability to reflect,
consistency and clarity of thought--these promote deep learning. Of course, too much
“Repetition is the First
Principle Of all Learning”
Robert F. Bruner
repetition has a dark side: boredom, student passivity, rote learning, and a high
opportunity cost--one could be extending the reach of students into new areas instead of
revisiting the old. The teacher needs to find the Goldilocks outcome, neither too much
nor too little repetition.
The way to achieve a sensible balance is to start with a focus on learning rather than
teaching; on the student rather than the teacher; on the ideas rather than the material.
From this new perspective, repetition becomes a tactic to help the student self-teach
First, think of the variety of time frames in which to repeat an idea:
An individual class session. One can use openings, middles and summaries to
repeat ideas--"tell them what you're going to tell them, then tell them, then tell
them what you told them."
A module of classes within a course. Modules are the real building blocks of the
repetitive cycle. One can start a module with an easy case that sketches the
framework, and then gradually deepen students' grasp with successively richer
Across an entire course. At the opening of the course one can plant ideas or
themes that will be revisited at a number of points throughout the course, and then
become the framework for the crescendo at the close of the course.
Across a multi-course program. Courses can, and should, support one another by
visiting key ideas. A marketing course might use net present value to assess a
strategy. A finance course might teach net present value with attention to
marketing strategy as a value driver. Increasingly, time-compressed program
designers are searching for teaching materials that can teach important concepts in
multiple disciplines.
Second, consider the wide variety of ways in which an idea might be repeated:
By the teacher, orally in class, in writing before or after class, or informally
outside of class.
By the students in class, in learning teams, and out of class.
By the course materials and readings, especially through the artful use of optional
By a visiting speaker.
“Repetition is the First
Principle Of all Learning”
Robert F. Bruner
By ad hoc serendipitous materials such as newspaper articles, stock price graphs,
The mix of time frames and instruments affords an enormous variety of opportunities to
repeat ideas. Here are five tactics that I have found to be especially useful for harnessing
the power of repetition or student-centered learning.
1. At the start of each class session, invite students to offer their "big aha's" or key
learnings from the previous session. I write these on a side chalkboard, and quite
often refer to them during that day's discussion. This emphasizes the connectivity of
ideas from case discussion to the next.
2. In every few classes, offer some comments on the path of ideas, and how they are
gathering together toward future learnings. I have done this both orally in a few
minutes of class time, and in writing, in the form of module notes--these cover
important ideas, questions, and issues, with the intent of giving students more to
think about, rather than relieving the students of the effort to figure things out for
3. Design your course like a story that has a few dominant themes to be repeated
frequently, and a number of subsidiary ideas to be built. Great stories have a
beginning that creates tension or inquiry; a middle that enriches the problem, and an
ending that revisits the tension and resolves it.
4. Carefully choose required readings that send a consistent message with the ideas
repeated elsewhere in the course.
5. Create many small opportunities to reinforce, revisit, and repeat ideas. These might
be in the form of brown-bag lunches where the students pick the topics or simply
arriving early/leaving slowly from class and using the extra time to converse about
important ideas.
Repetition is an important element of learning--maybe not the first element, but much
more important than the current emphases on speed and brevity suggest. Even in the
midst of binding time constraints, look for opportunities to revisit, review, and restate.
Through repetition, students return to where they started, and "know the place for the first
Past columns by Robert Bruner may be found by search at the
SSRN website at:
or by going to his Author Page at SSRN at:
Copyright © 1999 by Robert F. Bruner and the Trustees of the University of Virginia Darden School
“Repetition is the First
Principle Of all Learning”
Robert F. Bruner
... Hence, for quality of learning, one should consciously design repetitive engagement into courses and daily teaching. To do this well is harder for human teachers, whereas for robot teachers the job is easier [5]. When a teacher utilizes a robot in a classroom setting, the instructor's function is inextricably tied to the robot's role [27]. ...
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... The importance of an integrated planning team was supported by a study participant who regularly delivered community programming: Second, several participants commented on the level of repetition throughout the Planner and recommended making the document shorter and more concise. Although we carefully reviewed the Planner and eliminated unnecessary redundancies, some repetition was left in for pedagogical reasons [43]. Repetition helps readers remember and understand the information. ...
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... It was noted that studies that used more frequent educational sessions such as the one reported by Campino and Gursanscky providing 15 and 12 sessions within four months and one month respectively, had better outcomes compared to other studies [30,35]. Repeated encounters-as reported by Bruner-improves information retention [46]. It must be highlighted though that the mere repetition of the sessions might not be sufficient in improving practice. ...
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ResearchGate has not been able to resolve any references for this publication.