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Retrieval Practice in primary school: 8 practical strategies

Retrieval Practice in primary school: 8 practical strategies

7 min read
  • Retrieval Practice

With schools up and down the country keen to maximise the benefits of Retrieval Practice, it is always interesting to read about what this looks like in different contexts. One such context is looking at Retrieval Practice for primary students.

In this joint blog, InnerDrive’s lead psychologist, Bradley Busch briefly outlines the findings on the subject from a few studies, before Sophie Morris, Key Stage 1 Lead at Ryarsh Primary School, highlights how they have used Retrieval Practice over the last 2 years.

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What the research found

Early research on Retrieval Practice found that it can indeed be a very effective learning strategy for very young students. In quite a quirky study, researchers asked students to learn the name of different toy pigs. In the second of two experiments, students could either do a Retrieval Practice activity or be re-taught the names. The researchers found that Retrieval Practice was about twice as effective compared to the re-studying condition.

Indeed, a subsequent study found that for children age four and older, even unsuccessful Retrieval Practice (especially if it was followed by corrective feedback) was more effective than restudying the learning material.

The issue around unsuccessful Retrieval Practice (and indeed what adaptions we may need to make for primary aged students) was explored in one of the seminal papers in the research. Early on in the study, the researchers note that “the vast majority of research on Retrieval Practice has been carried out with college students, and very little has been done to examine Retrieval Practice effects in children, specifically those in late elementary grades”.

It is worth noting that this study was published in 2014, with good progress being made since. But still, the vast majority of Retrieval Practice research focuses on secondary or university students. Over the course of several experiments, the researchers conclude that Retrieval Practice can be a very effective for primary aged students, though advise “the need for guided practice in young children”.

So, what is “guided Retrieval Practice”? To answer this, it is probably best to contrast it with another type of retrieval, known as “free recall”. The researchers explain is a task that “provides little support in the immediate environment,” and that “free recall may be problematic if it results in very little retrieval success, which is a risk because the task affords little external support.”

In the Education Endowment Foundation’s excellent review on Cognitive Science, they conclude that while we do know general principles, the research into exactly what this looks like as a classroom strategy is still to be exactly determined. This means we are in an era of trial-and-error, as educators all over explore what this may look like.

This is why I was very excited and enthused to hear about some of the wonderful work that teachers at Ryarsh Primary School have been undertaking in this area…

What Retrieval Practice looks like in our primary school

At Ryarsh Primary School, our journey into Cognitive Science research and retrieval started a few years ago and, over time, our practice has grown and adapted as we have learned and trialled different things.

Initially, our upper KS2 teachers were fantastic at designing meaningful, interesting and varied ways of approaching retrieval with the oldest children. However, when it came time to share our ideas and best practices in CPD meetings, we often found that many of the recommended tasks, question templates or designs just weren’t suitable for a class of 4- or 5-year-olds (unless you had time or adults to spare aplenty!).

Recognising the importance of retrieval and knowing that it is absolutely key in any classroom, my EYFS and KS1 colleagues and I set about creating a list of Retrieval Practices that would require minimal reading, writing and time on the children’s part and therefore could be speedily used at the start and throughout any lesson with young children to ascertain understanding, to encourage retrieval and to further embed learning.

Caveat: The examples I have provided are real questions that we have used as Retrieval Practice with our Year 1 children. They are often simple, one-word or cloze activities and lean heavily on visual memory cues. This is largely because such activities lend themselves well to our youngest pupils who are still mastering the skill of basic writing in order to respond.

These retrieval tasks are ideal recaps of learning, being both low stake and offering high success rates for the children. As a team, the EYFS and KS1 teachers also provide much more open-ended, discussion-based retrieval opportunities in every lesson.

1. Multiple-choice questions

Multiple-choice questions are a firm retrieval favourite with teachers of all age groups. When thinking about this for the youngest children, we considered either:

  1. Completing a question as a whole group on the board with hands up
  2. Completing a question as a whole group on the board with whiteboards for individual answers
  3. Completing independently (possibly read aloud) but with picture answers or one-word answers to circle

If using this for phonics or spelling, do not rely on Word as we discovered the children are quick to twig the red “spelling” lines!

E.g. Which is the correct spelling? 
a. playb. plai
c. pleighd. plae

2. Map/diagram

Ideally, within a lesson, you might want pupils to label a complete diagram or a map. But, in an attempt to create a speedy EYFS/KS1-focused retrieval task, we ask them to colour in or circle a specific section or area to prove recall.

E.g.
Find and colour in Kent.
EYFS/KS1 Retrieval task - UK map for labelling

3. Matching up

This is, in itself, a simple task that has been used by teachers and in tests for hundreds of years. But it can also be useful to evidence understanding quickly. You might match up words to pictures, pictures to pictures or words to words depending on the subject matter, understanding and the ability of the pupils.

E.g. Match the vehicle to its transport mode:
EYFS/KS1 Retrieval task - Match up trainEYFS/KS1 Retrieval task - Match up skyEYFS/KS1 Retrieval task - Match up planeEYFS/KS1 Retrieval task - Match up roadEYFS/KS1 Retrieval task - Match up carEYFS/KS1 Retrieval task - Match up train tracks    

4. Photograph/diagram – What came before, what comes after

This can be particularly helpful when learning about processes in science or events in history; provide a picture/photograph/diagram and ask children to draw what happened before the picture or what happened next.

E.g. Here is a tree in Summer and then in Autumn, draw what would happen to the tree during the next season:
EYFS/KS1 Retrieval task - Tree in different seasons - what came before, what comes after?

5. Order the pictures

As above, this also lends itself well to science processes and historical events if they can be simplified down into basic pictures

E.g. Can you order the trains from first to be invented to most recently invented:
EYFS/KS1 Retrieval task - Order the train - MaglevEYFS/KS1 Retrieval task - Order the train - Flying ScotsmanEYFS/KS1 Retrieval task - Order the train - Steam locomotiveEYFS/KS1 Retrieval task - Order the train -  Modern train

6. Fill in the blank

This is exactly as it says on the tin. Most of the written leg-work is done for the pupil, there are just one or two written words needed for retrieval. Depending on the point of understanding and recall, the abilities of the class or pupil and how well embedded the learning is, you could make this easier by providing a word box or adding the first letter of each word needed

E.g.Fill in the blanks:The opposite of strong is ________________.The opposite of heavy is ________________.The opposite of waterproof is ________________. 

7. True or false

This is a simple retrieval task which we would often use at the start of a topic when learning is still quite new or fresh as it is not too cognitively demanding and, with only two options, can feel less daunting or demanding on younger pupils. The advantage of this is that it very quickly identifies easy misconceptions and can preface a lengthier in-class discussion about why it is or isn’t true, what other information we know to support this or what the statement would actually be true for.

E.g. Are the following statements true or false about mammals?
We are cold-blooded. True False
We have fur or hair. True False
We breathe through gills.True False
We have live babies.True False
We are invertebrates.True False 

8. Circle the correct answer/cross out the incorrect answer

This is a simplified (and is therefore often quicker for younger pupils) version of MCQs. Rather than the standard four answers, I would usually only offer two or three options with this activity.

E.g. Circle the correct castle part:
The battlements/moats are the upper part of the castle walls with higher bits to hide behind and lower bits to shoot through.
The bailey/drawbridge is an enclosed courtyard in the middle of the castle grounds where the keep/towers are found.

Final thoughts

The evidence suggests that primary-age students receive a Retrieval Practice learning boost. Exactly what the optimal format of that looks like is still being researched. Arguably, research will never be able to give a specific answer, as to an extent it will depend on individual context.

But with more and more primary teachers engaging with Retrieval Practice research and exploring how they can translate that into practice, we as an education community hopefully get one step nearer to finding out how best to use these research findings.


About the editor

Bradley Busch

Bradley Busch

Bradley Busch is a Chartered Psychologist and a leading expert on illuminating Cognitive Science research in education. As Director at InnerDrive, his work focuses on translating complex psychological research in a way that is accessible and helpful. He has delivered thousands of workshops for educators and students, helping improve how they think, learn and perform. Bradley is also a prolific writer: he co-authored four books including Teaching & Learning Illuminated and The Science of Learning, as well as regularly featuring in publications such as The Guardian and The Telegraph.

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