Evidence for Learning: Repeating a year

Repeating a year

A summary of the research evidence on repeating a year in the Australasian context.

The Teaching & Learning Toolkit focuses on impact; it presents an estimate of the average impact of repeating a year on learning progress, based on the synthesis of a large number of quantitative studies from around the world.

This page offers a summary and analysis of individual Australasian studies on repeating a year. In contrast to the Toolkit it includes studies which do not estimate impact, but instead investigate the implementation of interventions and how they are perceived by school leaders, teachers and students. This information is valuable for school leaders and teachers interested in finding out more about particular examples of repeating a year in Australia and New Zealand.

This Australasian Research Summary was generated by Melbourne Graduate School of Education in 2016. 

Students who do not reach a given standard of learning at the end of a year are required to repeat the year by joining a class of younger students the following academic year. Also known as grade retention”, non-promotion” or failing a grade”. For students at secondary school level, grade repetition is usually limited to the particular subject or classes that a student has not passed.

The logic behind this intervention strategy is that students who underachieve will be given more time to catch up. There remains little empirical support for the effectiveness of retention, and it has been found that repeating a year can be associated with negative educational outcomes, such as dropping out of school, poor academic achievement, and lower self-esteem. Nevertheless, retention continues to be used as an intervention strategy in both Australia and New Zealand, presumably because it requires little or no change to the school curriculum or structure. Younger students, boys, and students from low socioeconomic backgrounds and ethnic minorities are at a higher risk of repeating a year.

Hattie (2009) synthesised seven meta-analyses (total studies=207; total participants=13,938) that evaluated the effectiveness of retention. Retention, as intervention strategy, was found to be ineffective (d=-0.16) and in some instances harmful. On average, students who repeat a year perform 0.16 standard deviations below the mean of students who do not repeat. Retention was also found to be associated with negative effects across a range of subjects, work skills, study skills and social outcomes. Students who repeat tend to perform lower on assessments of social and emotional adjustment, and report more negative attitudes towards school. These negative effects appear to increase with age. Furthermore, retention is strongly linked with not completing school – students who are retained are twice as likely to drop out.

Martin (2011) found retention to be associated with a number of negative academic and non-academic outcomes. He contrasted 186 students who had repeated a year with controlled equivalents, with the results showing retention to be a significant negative predictor of homework completion and academic self-concept, and a positive predictor of maladaptive motivation and school absenteeism. Students who repeated a year were also more likely to have lower self-esteem. Relatedly, in an earlier paper, he found repeating a year to be associated with higher disengagement, lower positive intentions, lower homework completion, and lower test scores, relative to controls who had progressed (Martin, 2009).

Anderson (2008, 2012, 2015) repeatedly found boys and Indigenous students to be over-represented in retention data, and Vujic (2008) found that people with conduct disorder were more likely to repeat a year. These groups of students may face additional educational barriers and are more likely to display characteristics associated with perceived immaturity. Anderson (2008) suggested that schools and educators should adapt curriculum to better meet the needs of these students, instead of making them repeat a program of study that has already proved ineffective.

Retention also appears to be linked to education policy. A comparison of retention rates across the OECD found that educational policies were able to partially predict countries’ rates of retention (Goos, Schreier, Knipprath, De Fraine, Van Damme & Trautwein, 2013), with Australia having a relatively low number of students who repeat.

Anderson, R. (2008). Ready, set, don’t go: pre-school retention practices that restrict children’s access to school (Doctoral thesis, James Cook University, Australia). Retrieved from http://eprints.jcu.edu.au/2134

Anderson, R. (2012). Indigenous Students’ Increasing Risk of Grade Repetition in Early Schooling. The Australian Journal of Indigenous Education, 41(02), 196 – 207.

Anderson, R. (2015). Grade repetition risk for boys in early schooling in Queensland, Australia. Australasian Journal of Early Childhood, 40(4), 87 – 95.

Goos, M., Schreier, B. M., Knipprath, H. M. E., De Fraine, B., Van Damme, J., & Trautwein, U. (2013). How Can Cross-Country Differences in the Practice of Grade Retention Be Explained? A Closer Look at National Educational Policy Factors. Comparative Education Review, 57(1), 54 – 84.

Hattie, J. (2009). Visible learning: A synthesis of over 800 meta-analyses relating to achievement. London; New York: Routledge.

Martin, A. J. (2009). Age Appropriateness and Motivation, Engagement, and Performance in High School: Effects of Age within Cohort, Grade Retention, and Delayed School Entry. Journal of Educational Psychology, 101(1), 101 – 114.

Martin, A. J. (2011). Holding Back and Holding behind: Grade Retention and Students’ Non-Academic and Academic Outcomes. British Educational Research Journal, 37(5), 739 – 763.

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Repeating a year; grade retention; grade repetition; holding back; non-promotion.