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4 October 2022
By Jenny Jones - Improvement Adviser

Retrieval Practice in Primary Schools - is it Worth the Effort?

Estimated Reading Time - 10 mins 30 seconds
"Despite there being a wealth of research on the science of learning, to date, much of it has failed to get into the lands of the people who need it most!"
Busch & Warson (2019)

Many moons ago, when I was a primary teacher, it was a constant source of frustration to me that some children in my class were unable to hold on to their learning in the longer term. These were children who, at the time of me teaching them a topic, were clearly able to demonstrate their knowledge and understanding, yet were clueless a month later – it was as if the lessons had never been taught!
Fast forward to the current day and I now have a much better understanding of why my children didn’t retain their learning (and what more I could have done to improve their retention).

My mistake as a teacher all those years ago was that although I understood the importance of linking new learning to previous learning, I didn’t understand how to make the learning durable - to make it stick.

My classroom practices to help children to remember included, re-reading what been written, highlighting key information and cramming learning into a short space of time made very little difference to their learning. In the 1990’s, effective strategies to leverage memory to secure children’s learning long-term were not widely known by me or my teacher colleagues and they certainly weren’t part of our teacher training.

In the past few years there has been a great deal of educational discussion around ‘retrieval practice’ as a strategy to support learning long -term. This has partially been fuelled by Ofsted drawing on the ever- expanding research evidence base associated with long-term learning to inform the 2019 Education Inspection Framework.

For many years, research into the benefits of retrieval practice remained primarily within the confines of academia and had not been widely shared within the teaching profession. The majority of research studies were conducted using secondary age students and adults and therefore seemed less relevant to primary teachers.

Fortunately, retrieval information and ideas are now freely available online and are frequently discussed on social media platforms. As a consequence these have begun to seep into primary classrooms. The importance of memory and cognitive science is now even emphasised in the Early Career Framework (ECF) in England. However primary teachers are not yet universally knowledgeable about this approach nor well equipped with the tools to successfully support children in making knowledge ‘sticky. Retrieval practice is not part of every primary practitioner’s pedagogy.

But is it worth the time and effort for teachers to learn more about how our memory works and think about how to bring this into their teaching? Is it going to make a sufficient impact on learning?

Understanding Memory, Retention and Recall

Let’s start by getting a handle on the basics; what we know about the human brain, memory and recall. There are 3 main stages of learning and remembering; encoding, storage and retrieval and they are all interconnected.

  1. Encoding is the process of forming new memories and relating these to past knowledge. In order for children to encode information they must be paying attention to the learning. Sustaining attention can be a huge challenge given all the possible distractions in a classroom.
  2. Storage is the second stage and is the process of maintaining the information over time in the long- term memory.
  3. Retrieval requires children to be able to access the stored knowledge when they need it. The great news is that cognitive scientists have recognised that each time learning is accessed for retrieval, this process modifies the memory and re-encodes it; making the memory even more retrievable in the future. This is a compelling argument for more retrieval opportunities!
Working Memory

The first obstacle to learning which we need to overcome in the classroom is to make sure that children are paying attention to what we are teaching so that what we teach enters their working memory. When we are teaching, the information we share with our class passes initially into the working memory where it is processed.

The working memory is small and fixed and can only think about a limited number of things at any one time. Once the working memory reaches its limit cognitive overload occurs. The working memory is very easily overwhelmed with too much information and therefore teachers should plan to teach learning in small chunks. With any new learning, teachers should plan learning tasks that don’t require too much memory capacity.

Long Term Memory

The second obstacle is to make sure that the information in the working memory makes it into the long-term memory. The long-term memory is vast and can store a huge amount of information. Drawing on the long-term memory provides children with spare cognitive capacity in their working memory to think about new learning and to use higher order skills.

The long-term memory comprises a range of schemata; these are cognitive structures which connect and organise knowledge and help children to create meaning. These continue to build and modify over time, linking new learning and prior learning.

Once something has made its way into the long-term memory it tends to remain stored, however we know that access to specific memories declines over time – this really is a case of ‘use it or lose it’! Our challenge as teachers therefore is to ensure children’s memories of critical learning remain accessible and durable and the way we do this is by requiring children to revisit them regularly.

What is Retrieval Practice?

Retrieval practice boosts learning by pulling information out of students’ heads, rather than cramming information into students’ heads’. (2022)

Retrieval is a teaching and learning strategy (not an assessment strategy). In a nutshell, retrieval practice is a planned opportunity for children to recall key prior learning to build fluency.

There is currently a limited amount of research into the impact of retrieval practice in early years and primary age pupils, but where this does exist it provides us with a positive and exciting picture of its potential. There is also an increasing amount of interesting anecdotal evidence coming from class teachers who have seen the impact of retrieval practice in their own classrooms.

Using Retrieval to Make Learning 'Sticky'

Our aim in providing opportunities for retrieval is for our children to be able to recall critical knowledge easily and automatically. What should be clearly understood from the outset is that planning for recall opportunities should not be an onerous process! Short, simple, workload -friendly approaches are what is required.

To have the biggest impact; retrieval opportunities need to take place a reasonable time after the initial teaching of a unit or topic – research shows us that a little forgetting is helpful! Teachers do need to carefully consider what will be the focus of their retrieval practice and which ‘testing’ technique will be best to use (eg flash cards, concept map completion). Low stakes or no stakes testing with high challenge provides the perfect balance.

A Primary School Friendly Approach

"The key to good retrieval is developing effective cues, ones that will lead the rememberer back to the encoded information."
McDermott and Roediger 2013

Kate Jones has written extensively about the power of retrieval practice and in her latest book ‘Retrieval Practice: Primary: A guide for Primary Teachers and Leaders’ (2022) she shines a light on how approaches to retrieval in secondary classes can be adapted to meet the needs of primary aged children.

In her book Kate notes that studies involving primary children found that younger children struggle with ‘free recall’ tasks (such as ‘brain dumps’, where retrieval practice tasks have no support or cues). Primary teachers therefore need to think carefully about how to provide children with some degree of guidance so that retrieval tasks are worthwhile. Blank sheets of paper are extremely daunting for primary children and so we need to think carefully about how we retain the key elements of retrieval practice whilst structuring tasks to make them age-appropriate.

We want our children to engage in successful retrieval opportunities and we know that too little guidance is a hinderance to this process in primary children, however too much support can also make the process ineffective, so how do we strike the balance? Kate Jones suggests we need to think about how we provide scaffolded retrieval tasks which enable children to recall information independently. Our scaffolds should act as cues to help children to recall, without giving too much information.

Primary teachers therefore need to find the sweet spot between support and challenge – not too hard and not too easy, not too much scaffold and not too little! Research studies over many decades show there needs to be some degree of children struggling to retrieve knowledge (what scientists’ term ‘desirable difficulty’) because this is beneficial to learning but we also need children to be successful. Aiming for children to achieve a success rate of approximately 80% correct recall has been shown to have a positive impact on learning.

An Inclusive Approach

Retrieval practices should be inclusive. Most children will be able to participate in recall tasks that have limited hints or cues, but for some learners more additional support will be required; this is particularly true of SEND pupils. Scaffolded support includes prompts which enable children with SEND to access tasks and questions independently and gain the benefits associated with retrieval. Scaffolded retrieval tasks can take many forms including partially completed concept maps, partially completed mind maps, initial letters on a label on a diagram. These sorts of cues increase the chance of a child feeling successful without over-supporting them.

How to Provide Feedback

If retrieval practice is going to be successful, then research suggests teachers must build in feedback and reflection time for children. This practice supports children’s metacognition.

Kate Jones (2022) lists methods of checking and feedback with retrieval including, self-assessment, self-checking and self-correcting, peer assessment, instant verbal feedback from the teacher, written feedback, and using online tools or apps with a feedback facility. Teachers can display the answers the quizzes and children can mark their own work. All of these methods are workload-friendly.

Getting Started

Seven Steps to Success

  1. Engage with the research – make time available to strengthen teachers and TAs understanding. Learn from others how to make retrieval time-efficient, workload-efficient and inclusive.

  2. Train all teachers and TAs and empower them to ‘have a go’ in their classrooms and make retrieval part of their class routine.

  3. Provide time to share ideas and successes – develop a bank of high impact, low effort techniques.

  4. Agree a whole school approach.

  5. Start small – ask teachers to choose one subject and develop a retrieval practice ‘habit’ and slowly increase the frequency and use in a range of subjects as teachers become more confident.

  6. Ensure teachers build in time for feedback to children.

  7. Explain the learning benefits to children and parents – get their buy-in by explaining how retrieval works and the benefits.

So, is retrieval practice in primary schools worth the effort of implementation? I definitely think so! Although more research needs to be undertaken with early years and primary children the emerging research and anecdotal evidence would certainly suggest regular retrieval practice has the potential to have a very positive impact on making children’s learning more durable.

Further Useful Reading

Kate Jones ‘Retrieval Practice: Primary: A guide for Primary Teachers and Leaders’ (2022)
Peps Mccrea ‘Memorable Teaching’ 2017
Yana Weinstein, Megan Sumeracki with Oliver Caviglioli ‘Understanding How We Learn’ 2019

Following on from this blog, Jenny will be leading training on 22 November exploring ‘The Art of Teaching So Children Remember’ which will look at the research underpinning memory in more detail and provide a wealth of practical strategies for teachers to take back to the classroom.
Find out more by clicking on the purple button >>.

About the Author

Jenny's career in education has spanned over 24 years, undertaking teaching, consultancy and leadership roles within Kent. She has also been a headteacher and an executive headteacher. Jenny also holds a Masters in education.

Jenny likes to build long term relationships with schools, and has a high regard and respect for the complex challenges faced by teachers and leaders.

A few of Jenny's specialities include: Change management, systems leadership and coaching and leadership - however there are many more!