Academic journal article Journal of Instructional Psychology

Academic Achievement and Between-Class Transition Time for Self-Contained and Departmental Upper-Elementary Classes

Academic journal article Journal of Instructional Psychology

Academic Achievement and Between-Class Transition Time for Self-Contained and Departmental Upper-Elementary Classes

Article excerpt

The study investigated the relationship between elementary school classroom organizational structure (i.e., self-contained versus departmental formats) and standardized achievement scores, transition time between classes, and instruction time. Participants included 103 fifth-grade and 94 sixth-grade students from one school district. Based on previous findings, students from self-contained classes were predicted to achieve significantly more than comparable students from departmentalized classes, take significantly less time to change classes, and spend more time in instruction. Results indicated that the self-contained group gained significantly more on Total Battery, Language, and Science subtests compared to the departmentalized group. Departmentalized classes took significantly longer to transition from subject to subject than did the self-contained classes. No differences were evident for instructional time. Findings were consistent for fifth and sixth grades. The results are limited because of only using one school district.


Educators have debated elementary school organizational structure since the beginning of the twentieth century (Gibb & Matala, 1962; Lamme, 1976). One aspect of organizational structure involves the number of subject areas covered by each teacher. In the self-contained approach, the teacher acts as a generalist and carries responsibility for the curriculum all day. The other extreme is the departmentalized approach. Here students change teachers for instruction in different subjects. Thus teachers cover fewer subject areas (Roger & Palardy, 1987; Mac Iver & Epstein, 1992). Advocates for a self-contained organizational pattern argue that it promotes instruction which is child-centered rather than subject-centered. Self-contained classrooms allow the teacher and students the opportunity to become well-acquainted. Moreover, self-contained teachers know their students' strengths, weaknesses, and personality traits enabling better accommodation of the students' individual learning styles (Squires, Huitt, & Segars, 1983). Additionally, self-contained classes allow for greater flexibility in scheduling. Elkind (1988) argues that the time students spend gathering books and paper and moving to other departmental classes cuts into valuable instruction time.

On the other hand, some educators have found that departmentalized organizational approaches offer distinct advantages for the student (e.g., Culyer, 1984). Anderson (1962) presented a strong case for specialization when he reported that only 4 of 260 teachers considered themselves well prepared in all subject areas. Walker (1990) noted greater emphasis on curriculum matters in departmentalized elementary schools.

This paper is similar to one by Garner and Rust (1992) which found that fifth-grade students in self-contained rooms scored significantly higher on group achievement tests compared to their departmentalized peers. The present study added measures of transition time and actual instruction time.



The participants included 197 students (103 fifth graders and 94 sixth graders) from two kindergarten-sixth grade schools in rural Tennessee. There were 109 students from school A. Of these students, 58 fifth graders (30 boys and 28 girls) and 51 sixth graders (23 boys and 28 girls) attended departmentalized classes. School B's participants included 88 students. Of these students, 45 fifth graders (20 boys and 25 girls) and 43 sixth graders (21 boys and 22 girls) attended self-contained classrooms. All of the participants attended self-contained classrooms in the fourth grade. School A used departmentalized fifth-and-sixth grade classes. School B maintained self-contained classes through Grade 6. The social class compositions of Schools A and B were similar, with 27% of the students at each school getting free or reduced-fee lunch.


The scale scores and normal curve equivalents of the norm referenced component of the Tennessee Comprehensive Assessment Program (TCAP) were dependent variables. …

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