How to Create Retrieval Practice Activities for Elementary Students

How to Create Retrieval Practice Activities for Elementary Students

By Megan Smith

Retrieval practice is one of the six strategies for effective learning because it has been identified by cognitive psychology as an effective way to improve student learning. A plethora of research has been conducted on the benefits of practicing retrieval to improve meaningful learning, and we have written a lot about research on retrieval practice. We have also explained how older students and adult students can practice retrieval to improve their independent learning.

However, we know many of our readers are teachers of younger children. Research has shown that retrieval practice works with younger kids.  But, do the exact same retrieval practice activities that work with older students work with elementary students?

Recent research has found that some of the basic retrieval strategies that are particularly good at producing learning in older students (e.g., college students) don't work well with younger kids. For example, Karpicke, Blunt, Smith, and Karpicke (1) conducted an experiment with 4th grade students in their elementary classrooms. Karpicke and his colleagues took 4th grade science textbooks from the schools and modified the materials to make them easier to read. Students first read the modified text, and then students were given a blank sheet of lined paper and instructed to write down as much as they could remember from the text. They were given plenty of time, but the 4th graders still had trouble remembering what they just read. The students only were able to write down 9% of the information on average. (Typically, college students are able to write down at least 50% of the material.) On a learning assessment four days later, the students did not perform any better after practicing recall compared to just reading the modified text. In other words, adding the extra recall task didn't improve learning.

This image appeared in one of our TES-USA pieces.

This image appeared in one of our TES-USA pieces.

The finding that recall did not improve learning, in this case, isn't' actually surprising.  If college students try to practice recall, but they don't recall much of anything, then they aren't likely to benefit from the activity either. Doing this won't hurt the students' learning, but they do need to work their way up to being able to successfully recall at least a portion of the information. Then, after recall, to maximize benefits researchers recommend going back and checking class materials to fill in missing information. Recall, review, repeat. This is all well and good, but what can we, as teachers, do to help facilitate successful retrieval? This is particularly important for younger students who likely need more guidance and structure.

What retrieval-based learning activities work with elementary students?

It seems that in order for retrieval practice to work well with students of any age, we need to make sure that students are successful. Scaffolding is a great way to help increase retrieval success. Scaffolding could be implemented with any student, but it may be particularly important with students who may struggle to recall on their own from the start.

In another experiment, Karpicke and colleagues (1) tested ways of scaffolding retrieval with the 4th graders in their classrooms. To help guide the students to recall information, students were given partially completed concept maps -- or diagrams that helps to represent relationships among ideas about a given topic. An example from the original research is shown below. Students were first allowed to fill out the concept maps with the text in front of them. Then, the researchers took away the texts, and had the students complete these partially completed concept maps by recalling the information from memory. Using this scaffolded retrieval activity, the 4th grade students were much more successful on a learning assessment later.

Image of materials used in Karpicke, Blunt, Smith, & Karpicke, 2014 (1)

Image of materials used in Karpicke, Blunt, Smith, & Karpicke, 2014 (1)

Knowing scaffolding with concept maps helps students successfully retrieve information, the researchers completed one more experiment to compare the guided retrieval activity to a study-only control condition (1). Students completed a question map (shown below) with the text in front of them, and then completed another question map without the text. This was compared to a control group during which the students just read through the text twice.

Image of materials and assessment results from Experiment 3, Karpicke et al., 2014 (1)

Image of materials and assessment results from Experiment 3, Karpicke et al., 2014 (1)

On the learning assessment later, students remembered much more of the information when they used the map to practice retrieval compared to just reading. So, while practicing recall with a blank sheet of paper did not produce more learning than reading, practicing recall with helpful scaffolds in place did produce more learning than reading.

BOTTOM LINE: retrieval practice works well for students of many ages and abilities. But, for some students, writing out everything they know on a blank sheet of paper may be a daunting task that does not lead to much successful retrieval. To increase success, teachers can implement scaffolded retrieval tasks, like the mapping activities presented here. With scaffolding, the students can successfully produce the information and work their way up to recalling the information on their own.


(4) Karpicke, J. D., Blunt, J. R., Smith, M. A., & Karpicke, S. S. (2014). Retrieval-based learning: The need for guided retrieval in elementary school children. Journal of Applied Research in Memory and Cognition, 3, 198-206.

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