Perspectives on tomorrow's education research from teachers and researchers

What is the best way to plan retrieval practice in primary schools given the range of different subjects and developmental ability?
Anoara Mughal. Primary School Teacher

Retrieval practice is the processes of recalling previously learnt knowledge from long term memory to consolidate learning. Although, there are many types of retrieval practice, there appear to be two main ways that knowledge is retrieved in classroom practice, with both valuable in their own right: isolated retrieval practice and embedded retrieval. Isolated retrieval practice could be characterised as tasks that require children to retrieve specific knowledge through tests, quizzes, and questioning to achieve fluency in specific knowledge. On the other hand, embedded retrieval could be characterised as tasks that require children to retrieve specific knowledge within the context of a broader task such as reading or problem-solving. Embedded retrieval could also include tasks which require children to recall information from another subject, forming links between different domains of knowledge.

The issue with planning retrieval practice for primary school teachers is that there is not only huge variation in the development of their pupils (across different years groups and within a year group), but also in the range of subjects taught by one teacher compared to in secondary schools. Retrieval practice can look very different in one primary subject compared to another. For example, in maths, isolated retrieval practice of rapid recall questions are usually set to help with assessment and to identify gaps in learning of facts, whereas embedded retrieval could be activating prior knowledge through problem solving. In reading, isolated retrieval practice could include retrieval of the names of characters, places and events, or recalling the definitions of words. However, retrieving the meaning of words can also be embedded in other tasks. For example, depending on the stage of pupils’ understanding of vocabulary and comprehension, activating prior knowledge through predictions when reading is often used where pupils are naturally required to draw upon facts in order to be able to make predictions. Turning to science, there is often a focus on isolated retrieval practice of science terminology, although retrieval of terminology can also be embedded into tasks.  An example is sorting and classifying materials. This is where pupils are recalling and using vocabulary specific to the task, deepening their understanding of the vocabulary and making links to other subject domains.

There is no doubt that retrieval practice is beneficial to teachers and classroom practice, not only as an assessment tool but more so as a learning strategy. When quizzes and tests are set, the learner is required to actively search their mind or look up the answer. This ‘struggle’ or challenge appears to be more effective at improving our long-term memory than simply re-reading or making notes. In addition, to improving memory, through elicitation of facts and higher order thinking skills, retrieval practice can enable pupils to use their knowledge in new situations, thereby improving their understanding of the learning material. Another benefit of retrieval practice is the development of metacognition where both pupils and teachers can identify learning gaps more easily. As a result of identifying learning gaps and being given feedback, both teachers and pupils can tailor the learning more effectively, thereby increasing self-efficacy.

However, primary teachers face the complex task of teaching a range of different subjects to children of differing levels of development. Does this affect how different types of retrieval practice should be used in primary education? It would be useful to have more guidance on questions like: Does the frequency of retrieval practice differ dependent on age, subject and domains? What conditions, subjects, and domains are more appropriate to use or isolated and embedded retrieval in? Does the usefulness of retrieval practice depend on the stage of development a pupil is at? What about pupils who have missed a lot of learning – does the size of the learning gap affect the type of retrieval that should be used? A broader question is how can retrieval practice be embedded given the constraints of the primary school timetable and curriculum?

Retrieval practice is clearly a powerful teaching and learning strategy, although the questions of how, when and why retrieval practice should be used is a more complex issue for primary teachers. More research and a clearer guidance framework would be very beneficial for primary teachers.

Anoara Mughal has worked as a primary school teacher for fourteen years. She is a Network Leader @WomenEdLondon, a member of  the @HealthyToolkit steering group, a founding fellow @CharteredColl and a fellow @theRSAorg. As an Assistant Head teacher, Anoara has experience in leading Year 6, English, P4C, CPD, PPA, pupil premium, curriculum, and metacognition initiatives, and recently passed the NPQH. She is passionate about language acquisition and has a keen interest in translating research into classroom practice. Anoara has also worked as an UKS2 Writing Moderator for the borough of Waltham Forest.

You can keep up to date with Anoara’s work via Twitter here.

Find out more about the aims of the Learnus blog here.

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August 18, 2020 at 07:26 pm

I think you’ve outlined the areas very well. Primary teachers are lucky to be able to see children’s strengths and weaknesses across a wide range of subjects and are well-placed to look for (and make) those connections between different topics (the “embedded retrieval” you refer to). As you note, the variety is a bit of a blessing and a curse because we have all the subjects and the children are not setted so we therefore need to think of how to pitch and vary practice.

Regarding varying pitch and supporting all the children in class, being “low-stakes” is great but I still don’t want a handful of the same children not experiencing success. I look for ways of keeping the struggle but avoiding the shame. We can have, for example, quizzes out of 10 and give differing multiple choices to support children. However, I am loathe to do this every time I want a short burst of retrieval practice as a whole class. I know it’s not meant to be “edutainment” but I wouldn’t want to do three of these a day with a 6-year-old. Yet, I am conscious of cognitive overload with regard to the variety of retrieval exercises and of teacher workload. It’s a balancing act between keeping it fresh and having children maintain focus on the learning itself and not the activity’s rules etc. I’m working on different exercises to use.

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