What is the best way to educate our young students? There sometimes seems to be this unspoken battle between play-based learning and retrieval practice. We have had a number of teachers tell us their perception of retrieval is that is best for older students, as it links more naturally with taking GCSE, A-level or BTEC exams. So, is it a case of one or the other? Or when it comes to primary school, can retrieval practice and play-based learning co-exist?
What is play-based learning?
Play-based learning is all about encouraging children to learn through play. Teachers can help facilitate or capitalise on students’ play to help promote learning. Some examples of what this might look like in primary schools include:
- Creating board games to help strengthen mathematical concepts
- Asking questions that involve problem solving skills when playing with blocks
- Having games that involve reading and writing
These activities help students learn and use different problems solving skills in imaginative and playful ways.
The benefits of play-based learning
Research suggests that this form of learning is very beneficial for students’ socio-emotional development. In one study, researchers found that play helped children form social relationships, support the well-being of their peers and resolve conflicts.
Play-based learning is also beneficial for students’ academic performance. In another study, students either attended a school with a traditional or a play-based curriculum. All students took a test at baseline and 6 months later to measure their language and non-verbal skills. After 6 months, the researchers found that:
- Both groups showed equal improvement in their vocabulary skills
- Children in the play-based group showed greater improvement in their grammatical, narrative and non-verbal skills
Not only does play-based learning have positive benefits for students’ language skills, but also their mathematical skills. In another study, researchers found that children who played linear numerical board games showed improvements in their numerical knowledge and verbal counting skills which remained 9 weeks later.
But what about retrieval practice?
Studies have consistently shown that retrieval practice is beneficial for all secondary students, but what about those in primary school?
Well, in one study researchers investigated this by giving primary school students facts to learn. The students were then split into two groups, with one group using retrieval practice to learn the facts, whereas the other group simply made notes.
Just under two weeks later, all students were tested on how many facts they could recall. The researchers found that the students in the retrieval practice group recalled significantly more facts than those in the non-retrieval practice group.
Why is retrieval practice good for primary schools?
There are several aspects of retrieval practice strategies that are in sync with primary school settings. These include, but are not limited to:
- Helping students with low working memory
Our working memory allows us to hold and manipulate information. However, it has a very limited capacity. This is especially true for primary school students; studies show that younger children have low working memory. Therefore, if the information is not solidified into students’ long-term memory, they might forget the information.
This is where retrieval practice comes in handy, as it allows the recall and transfer of information with long-term memory. One study that explored this found significantly greater recall benefits when students with low working memory used retrieval practice and were given feedback 2 days later. Therefore, primary school students may benefit the most from using this technique.
- Most effective in low-stakes environments
One crucial factor to harness the benefits of retrieval practice is ensuring that the tasks are low stakes. If you attempt retrieval practice in a high-stake environment, it might cause students stress, which can have a negative impact on how much they actually learn.
In comparison to secondary school, primary schools may easier provide a more low-stake environment. As students get older in secondary school, the looming presence of external exams can feel stressful and pressurised (making low-stakes retrieval very important, but certainly more challenging).
There is, therefore, the opportunity for retrieval practice to flourish in primary settings, where a low-stakes environment may be easier to cultivate.
- It may really benefit students with ADHD
Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) is a neurodevelopmental disorder that includes symptoms such as a lack of focus, hyperactivity and impulsive behaviour. According to the NHS, a common age for people to be diagnosed with ADHD is between 6-12 years old (i.e., mainly when they are in primary school).
In terms of academic performance, research shows that students with ADHD are more likely to experience difficulties. However, retrieval practice has shown to be an effective study technique for those students.
This was found in one study, where students with and without ADHD all showed high levels of recall and recognition when using retrieval practice. It is worth noting that this study was done with students who had ADHD from a higher age group, though we can speculate the same impact will be had for younger students who have ADHD to help them learn more effectively.
So, Can Play-Based and Retrieval Practice Co-Exist?
Clearly, both play-based learning and retrieval practice can be beneficial for primary age students. Sometimes, the misconception is that the former is best suited to primary and the latter is a best for secondary school. However, there is no reason to suggest that the two can't co-exist, and indeed, compliment each other in a primary school.
We were unable to find any study that specifically measured and compared the two. However, perhaps the question of "which one is better" is the wrong question. A varied diet tends to be the healthiest. In doing so, we potentially give our students the best chance of success in primary schools.