Retrieval Practice In Primary School

Written by Dan

Retrieval practice is the act of remembering information without using any external resources. It was typically referred to as ‘the testing effect’, based on studies that showed tests and quizzes enhanced learning efficiency.

Nevertheless, further investigation demonstrated that asking pupils to recall prior knowledge in whatever form produced a similar beneficial result – thus leading people to begin utilising the term ‘retrieval practice’ more often.

A prime instance of retrieval practice and metacognition in the classroom is asking students to name their favourite rugby team’s starting 15. While this example may not seem applicable to maths, it idealises how these methods fit perfectly when combined with other learning techniques, such as program questioning.

Why Is Retrieval Practice Essential For The Classrooms

By concluding a unit on a specific subject, teachers can be confident that most students have learned the skill they were taught – such as utilising the grid method. Moreover, children may display adequate aptitude in an end-of-unit formative assessment or answer accurately to occasional quizzing during class.

After a few weeks, however, children have forgotten about the grid method – even if you could provide them with tailored instruction in class. This bewildering situation can dishearten teachers and make them question their teaching capabilities. If this resonates with you on any level, don’t worry; you are not alone!

What Does The Research Say?

General forgetfulness is a common occurrence that even our most talented are susceptible to. Fortunately, cognitive science has studied this dilemma extensively and developed proven techniques to counter it.

Soderstrom & Bjork (2015) elucidated an essential distinction between performance and learning – two components that play integral roles in researching this field:

‘Performance is what we can see happening during teaching. On the other hand, learning is invisible inside children’s heads. We cannot observe learning; we can only infer it.’

It is often difficult to determine if authentic learning has occurred by simply looking at a student’s performance. Unfortunately, teachers and school administrators may mistakenly assume that lasting change and growth in long-term memory have been achieved based on current scores alone.

To help counter this assumption, teachers should provide students with prompts during lessons to encourage them to come up with the correct answers themselves.

Taking a single step is commendable, but it will only be effective if teachers equip learners with reliable and high-quality teaching techniques that allow them to progress beyond the rote performance of facts.

Thankfully, cognitive science has produced much research data regarding strategies educators can use to ensure long-term learning occurs.

Why Use Retrieval Practise in Your Classroom?

It may appear illogical, but cognitive science has demonstrated that memories become more durable when we strive to recall them. On the other hand, if we do not attempt to recollect something, it will inevitably fade away.

Retrieval Practice is a tactic educators can deploy to provide students with occasions where they must remember previously learned and now forgotten information.

By providing students with a mission (or memory recall activity) to complete, they are attempting to access their long-term memories. This repetition will help them better remember the material and make it easier for them to retrieve the information on future occasions.

Bjork (1975) puts it:

‘Retrieval is a powerful memory modifier.’

Educators must understand that for memory retention; students must attempt to remember without any hints or additional instruction from us. The primary purpose of retrieval practice is the element of the challenge; it needs to be complex enough that it requires extra effort to recall information.

Retrieval practice undertaken during the same lesson after teaching material has been presented renders no benefit since there wouldn’t have been a struggle involved. Retrieval practice works best when memories have faded and need refreshing!

Retrieval Practise and Maths

For KS2 children to truly internalise what they are being taught, we must regularly refer to the same topics. Revisiting material alone won’t prove successful, though. Instead, it’s essential to have them take low-stakes quizzes that will help challenge their knowledge of concepts learned in previous weeks without any prior review by the teacher.

It may feel unsafe initially, but this is essential for long-term retention!

As educators, we’d often review something that had yet to be practised before retesting it. That’s why the manner of doing retrieval practice is so significant and must remain low-pressure.

This isn’t an assessment or test; instead, it is about making memories stronger. Retrieval practice should be seen as a learning technique instead of an evaluation approach– children need to understand this difference clearly!

Our Classrooms

To help with retrieval practice, why not challenge your students to go on a knowledge hunt? Their understanding may be elusive and tricky, but they will have fun tracking it down. Quizzes are also an excellent tool for reinforcing information – you can use paper or whiteboards as preferred.

These approaches provide a perfect way for pupils to engage in the material and remember what they’ve learned!

Once the quiz is completed, never have students exchange and grade each other’s exams. This strategy increases apprehension around the assessment (as if it were a severe test rather than just a quiz).

When you review the questions, they may need more time to be occupied with second-guessing their partner’s marking skills instead of focusing on your explanation.

It is optional to assess whether your children’s wrong answers have been corrected when they are being explained; feedback can be beneficial! Should you ask them to count the number of questions answered correctly out of ten?

Introducing performance assessments into the learning process at this stage would serve no purpose.

Keep retrieval Practise Simple.

To gather assessment information, you can create a quiz similar to the original one with slight changes in numbers, but ensure that all mathematical problems remain intact. Then, clarify to children that this is not merely a quiz – it’s an actual test.

Also, if you opt for math homework as an additional practice between attempts at the examination and test, make sure they are aware of what lies ahead – a crucial exam!

Give yourself intervals to review knowledge at three days, three weeks, and three months after it is learned.

Additionally, remember the material you studied one year ago, two years ago and three years ago. StrainingStaining your memory muscles with the forgotten information again strengthens its existence in your conscious mind!

Of course, if need be, once struggling through those memories, reteach them for a more robust understanding of the concept or idea.

Automaticity is Important

It is essential to ensure pupils recall the material taught since math relies on solid foundational knowledge. Additionally, their limited mental capacity must be used for new information instead of remembering topics that could quickly become automatic.

Math instruction involves building up these recalled concepts so students can learn more complex aspects of the subject in the future.

In mathematics, a common issue that impedes student progress is the tendency to rely on counting instead of recalling foundational number facts with automaticity.

This reliance can begin as early as primary school and persist through secondary education; when children are reduced to counting rather than calculating, it places an immense cognitive load on their working memory, leaving little capacity for solving math problems.

Regardless of any other activity, primary schools must ensure that their pupils are equipped with the number bonds within 20 and times tables. If we don’t provide students adequate time to master these skills through repetition and recall, they will likely experience continual difficulty in math for years to come.

Despite this crucial need, many educators display a reluctance against what is deemed as “mindless” rote learning. Yet if all children did was mindlessly drill without ever utilising it practically, then obviously, no real progress would be made.

Retrieval practice is an essential part of effective learning in primary school. It helps students strengthen their foundational knowledge and ability to recall information, vital to adequately understanding new material as they progress through their math education journey.

To ensure this happens, educators should provide ample opportunity for retrieval practice using quizzes and tests while ensuring that the material being assessed is automatic for the student.

With sufficient support and guidance, pupils can become confident in their mathematics skills and have a solid basis for further math exploration.

For more quizzes, plans and units of work, visit our TES store.


What is retrieval practice?

Retrieval practice is a teaching technique that involves asking students to recall information they have previously learned. This can include quizzing, testing, or answering questions related to the studied material.

Requiring students to retrieve memories of what has been taught in the past helps them remember and understand new concepts as they progress through their education.

How can retrieval practice help students learn in English?

Retrieval practice can help students learn English by allowing them to review and recall words and phrases that they have previously encountered. This technique provides more vital memorisation of material, which is beneficial for language learning since it involves a great deal of repetition.

Additionally, retrieval practice helps students internalise grammar rules more quickly and accurately and remember critical phrases and idioms.

It can also be a reference for students when they want to recall information swiftly or use an expression in conversation.

How can Retrieval practice help students perform better in Geography and History?

Retrieval practice can help students perform better in Geography and History by requiring them to remember facts, dates, and locations related to the topics being studied.

This allows for a deeper understanding of the subject material and encourages students to think more critically about their studies. Additionally, it helps them recall information when needed on tests or quizzes.

With consistent review and retrieval practice, students can become more confident in their understanding of the material and perform better.

Why is automaticity necessary in math?

Automaticity is essential in math because it allows pupils to recall foundational knowledge quickly rather than constantly counting or performing tedious calculations.

This prevents their working memory from becoming overwhelmed, leaving them with more capacity to solve complex math problems and explore more challenging aspects of the subject.

Automaticity also ensures that students can think logically and strategically about mathematics without relying on counting or memorising each step in a problem. Ultimately, automaticity helps students become confident and proficient mathematicians.

About The Author

I'm Dan Higgins, one of the faces behind The Teaching Couple. With 15 years in the education sector and a decade as a teacher, I've witnessed the highs and lows of school life. Over the years, my passion for supporting fellow teachers and making school more bearable has grown. The Teaching Couple is my platform to share strategies, tips, and insights from my journey. Together, we can shape a better school experience for all.

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