Reflections on Integrating Tech into the Elementary Classroom

It is now about 5 weeks into the school year and enough time has passed for me to reflect on how things are going.

One thing I have learned is that adding one piece of tech to my teaching may be simple for me, but it is not so straightforward for my 5th and 6th grade students. This year, I wanted to use Quizlet in my classroom as a way to incorporate retrieval and spaced practice but it has not gone well yet. I thought it would be simple. I can have my students make an account and then they just need to join the class by watching me model it on the projector and following the printed out instructions (with pics!). Fifteen minutes of set up for a years worth of learning.

Not so fast.

I have students who struggle to translate the printed instructions to their iPad’s screen (English is their second language). I have students who forgot their email and/or password. With the first round of tests coming up, I still do not have every student signed up. And I recently found out I gave some people access to my Quizlet class that are not even in the country I teach. Oops.

I like to think I am a competent, well-planned teacher who has a handle on basic tech, but adding this has given me my doubts. I am planning on giving one more push for Quizlet because I am convinced of the efficacy of retrieval and spaced practice. It would be a powerful tool to use as a class warm-up. And a great way for faster students to review at the end of a class (I am less convinced of Quizlet’s usefulness outside of the classroom because the internet is too full of distractions). However, no tool is worth making my life or my students’ lives harder. If this next push doesn’t work, I will simply cut my losses and use some good ol’ fashioned physical flashcards.

Not All Tech is a Nightmare

On the bright side, my class science website has gone swimmingly. I had students glue a QR code to the back cover of their notebooks and it’s only a scan away. The way I use my website is to have students read and take notes on articles that are related to what we are learning in class. The plan is for students to read and take notes on two articles per chapter. I am also requiring them to do a simplified version of an MLA citation that will become a full blown MLA citation by the end of the semester.

One thing I am seeing with this is that my students still require explicit teaching in this area. The first time we did the activity, too many students wasted time because they were unsure of what to write down. This was my fault, I assumed the activity was simple, because it would be simple for me. My 5th and 6th grade students are not me, they are still learning how to take notes. 

To remedy this I drew their attention to the article title, headings, and bolded words and explained how to use them in their notetaking. At this point, my students were largely able to do it on their own and I was able to provide timely help those who needed more guidance.

Final Reflections

Tech can be great. It can also be a great headache. We need to be smart about how we use and incorporate it. Even when our plan is backed by science (retrieval practice and spaced practice) and each step is literally spelled out and modeled by the teacher (as in my case), if students cannot use the tech, it isn’t going to be worth it, even if the tech is amazing. Teaching is hard enough. Don’t make it harder by giving yourself a tech headache. 

Find something that fits these three categories:

  1. Works for you
  2. Works for your students
  3. Is backed by research

If either of the first two are lacking, you will have a headache, and your students probably will too. If the third is lacking, you are likely doing your students a disservice.

Teaching The Scientific Method: Background Research

If you teach primary science, then you will inevitably find yourself teaching the scientific method.


  1. Asking A Question
  2. Background Research
  3. Hypothesis
  4. Design Experiment
  5. Test and Retest
  6. Analyze Data
  7. Draw Conclusions
  8. Communicate Results


Background research is the cornerstone of any experiment, even in elementary school because your students will use their background knowledge to come up with their hypothesis.

The best way to develop background knowledge is to teach with the science of learning in mind. If you are new to this and want more information, Anita Archer and Retrieval Practice both have some excellent examples and can walk you through how to apply the science of learning to your teaching.

Background Knowledge

Before planning a lab it is helpful to start with some questions.

  1. What content knowledge will my students need in order to perform the lab?
  2. What procedural knowledge will my students need in order to perform the lab?

And the all important follow up question. How will I know my students have that knowledge?

Content Knowledge

The first question will always depend on what type of lab you are doing, because different labs require different knowledge. 

For example, pretend for a moment that you are planning common elementary lab on rates of plant growth.

Before beginning the lab, your students should at minimum know…

  1. The basic anatomy of a plant (roots, stem, leaves, flower, petal, etc)
  2. How a plant gets nutrients (roots and soil)
  3. How a plant makes food (photosynthesis)

How will you ensure that you students know this? Test it! Now, you need not always create a test, the point is that you must assess your students’ understanding of this knowledge in some way. It would be best if your students do not have access to a neighbor, their book, or notes during this assessment. The purpose of these limitations is to help you accurately assess your students. Do they actually know it? Note: The assessment does not need to be for a grade. No-stakes assessments can be very strategic! And time saving for you too, no stakes=no grading!

Ideally you will have enough time to reteach information to correct misperceptions but that will not always be possible.

Procedural Knowledge

Procedural Knowledge: knowing how to do something

First, this type of knowledge is often difficult for students to grasp because it is not by itself. You always map the content knowledge onto the procedural knowledge. 

With procedural knowledge, I think there are two main questions:

Do I want my students to learn what happens? Do I want my students to know how to set up and perform the experiment along with learning what happens?

Your students will need to have the procedural knowledge to make observations and record data. This will seem simple to you, but it is not for them, remember, you are an elementary science teacher. Review with your students. A great way to review is to use physical objects and have students make observations together. Monitor their responses. You will need to check to make sure they are scientific observations, not opinions or inferences.

In many elementary experiments, gathering data is straightforward. However, you still need to teach it. Anyone who has ever watched a group of elementary students measure distance, weight, volume, or temperature knows that it isn’t second nature for our students.

We should explicitly explain how to take measurements and model it. Give multiple, short in class assignments where students take different types of measurements depending on what your experiment will be. After all, if they gather bad data, how will they be able to trust the experiment’s results?

As far as designing the actual experiment, it can be a smart choice to reduce the level of procedural knowledge needed. 

For example, instead of having your students set up an experiment and plan the steps, you can provide them with the set up and steps.
“Ok class, we have three pea plants that are in the same type of soil with the same amount of water, the only difference is their location. One will be in full sunlight, one will be in half sunlight, and the other will be in the dark.”

Doing this allows your students to focus on applying their content knowledge. It greatly reduces their cognitive load, and increases the chances of them learning from their hypothesis. However, you obviously do not want to keep your students here, dependent on their teacher to perform an experiment. The solution is to explain why each plant has the same soil and water. And then to explain why you are only changing the amount of sunlight.

Then, as the year goes on, have your students design more and more of the experiment. 

Procedural knowledge must be tested too! If your students do not have it, they have no hope of a successful experiment. So, assess it!

Background knowledge is key. We must teach and ensure that our students have both the content and procedural knowledge that our lab demands. If we do this, then our students will learn more, labs will be less stressful, and I have found that students have more fun if they know what and why they are doing something.

Give them knowledge, make fun possible!

Research Apértif: Quizzing in Middle-School Science: Successful Transfer Performance on Classroom Exams

According to, an apértif is a small drink of alcoholic liqueur taken to stimulate the appetite before a meal. This research apértif is likewise designed to stimulate your mind’s appetite.

If you enjoy the appetizer, click-through at the bottom of the page for the main course!

Background Research/Lit Review

1. the act of retrieving answers to questions during testing can enhance and modify memory for the tested information
2. A limitation: most studies have used identical questions on initial and final tests
3. Recall, then rereading produces a higher success rate on application questions than reading alone
4. Initial quizzing on target concepts may promote performance (relative to no quizzing) on novel application exam questions
5. Multiple choice quizzing effects are generally smaller than short-answer quizzing effects

Experiment 1

1. 142 seventh grade science students participated in the study: Final sample was 61 students
2. Quiz questions required matching a term to a definition. Test questions required matching a definition to a term. Testing near transfer.
3. three quizzes: pre-lesson after reading the chapter, post-lesson, and 24hrs before the exam
4. Quizzes improved term-response exam performance by 12-15%
5. Quizzes improved definition-response exam performance by 9-10%
6. Quizzing promoted near transfer of target content in a classroom setting

Experiment 2

1. 142 eighth-grade science students: Final sample included 90 eighth-grade science students
2. Focused on application questions (more required transfer than experiment 1)
3. three quizzes: pre-lesson after reading the chapter, post-lesson, and 24 hrs before the exam
4. Quizzing with application questions improves final test performance on related application questions.
5. Quizzing with term-response questions does not improve final test performance on related application questions

Discussion of Experiments

1. Spaced testing with feedback enhances the flexibility of knowledge
2. Quizzing application concepts in a concrete context promoted transfer and better retention of definitional information on a final test
3. repeated multiple choice quizzes with feedback can enhance performance on novel exam questions
4. Term-response questions did not increase performance on application exam items

Link to Article
Quizzing in Middle-School Science: Successful Transfer Performance on Classroom Exams

Mcdaniel, M. A., Thomas, R. C., Agarwal, P. K., Mcdermott, K. B., & Roediger, H. L. (2013). Quizzing in Middle-School Science: Successful Transfer Performance on Classroom Exams. Applied Cognitive Psychology, 27(3), 360–372. doi: 10.1002/acp.2914

How to Teach Critical Thinking: A Summary’s Summary

Critical Thinking Can Be Taught

1. Teach strategies and principals and integrate those principals into your teaching

Teaching Critical Thinking for General Transfer

1. Transfer is only possible when there is a relationship between topics.
-Ex: Writing a paragraph will not improve your ability to use a shading technique in drawing
2. Even seemingly related topics do not always allow for transfer.
-Ex: Estimating the area of rectangles does not improve ability to estimate the area of other geometric shapes
3. Teaching general critical thinking skills leads to limited success

Transfer And The Nature Of Critical Thinking

1. Critical thinking is not a generalizable skill because “analyze, synthesize, and evaluate” mean different things in different disciplines
2. Goals for critical thinking must be domain specific
3. There are some logic rules that transfer across domains, but students will struggle to apply them to new, unfamiliar domains

Critical Thinking As Problem Recognition

1. Challenges to transferring knowledge: Deep and Surface Structure
-Deep structures: Deep structures are often abstract and difficult to understand. Understanding the deep structure requires many examples (rich knowledge of surface structure)
-Surface structures
2. Speed recognition of deep structure
-problem comparison (2 worked examples with differing surface structure and the same deep structure)
-Teach the sub-steps of a process (label the sub-steps) to make knowledge more flexible

Open-Ended Problems And Knowledge

1. Critical thinking for routine and open-ended problems relies on extensive stores of domain knowledge.
2. Knowledge helps by…
-Improving the recognition process
-Allowing working memory to treat disparate groups as pieces of a single unit. (Frees up space in your working memory)
-Enabling you to deploy thinking strategies
3. Even experts struggle to think critically outside of their domain of expertise!

How To Teach Students To Think Critically (4 Steps)

1. Identify what is meant by critical thinking in your domain. Be specific.(Think like a scientist is not a helpful goal.) Identify what tasks would demonstrate critical thinking. Explicitly teach and have students deliberately practice said tasks.
2. Identify the domain content students must know. Identify the knowledge students need to successfully complete the tasks in step 1. This will involve uncomfortable, but necessary trade-offs. We interpret new information in light of what we know.
3. Choose the best sequence to learn the skills and knowledge.
4. Decide which skills and what knowledge should be revisited across years

Link to Article

How to Teach Critical Thinking

Teaching The Scientific Method: Hypothesis

If you teach primary science, you will inevitably find yourself teaching the scientific method.2013-updated_scientific-method-steps_v6

  1. Asking A Question
  2. Background Research/Knowledge
  3. Hypothesis
  4. Design Experiment
  5. Test and Retest
  6. Analyze Data
  7. Draw Conclusions
  8. Communicate Results

In order to teach students how to write a hypothesis, you must first give them background knowledge. This is imperative. Elementary students are, by definition studying elementary topics, even top students will have a relatively low level of background knowledge.

In short, you must plan out what your students will need to know before they begin a lab. What background knowledge do they need? How will you make sure they know it before the lab?

 After your students have made observations and obtained the necessary background knowledge, they can begin working on their hypothesis.

Hypothesis: An idea that helps you learn about the world that is testable and repeatable

I start by teaching what testable and repeatable are by using a seemingly ridiculous hypothesis. “If I let go of this pen, then it will go up because of the force of gravity.”

Students think it is funny because the hypothesis is obviously wrong. And I want them to know it is wrong! So I repeat the phrase, and let the pen go to test my hypothesis. Next, I ask my students what happened. Finally I repeat the hypothesis and experiment.

Then I ask, “Was the hypothesis testable?” and “Could I repeat the experiment?” And I follow that with, “Was my hypothesis correct?” 

This leads to something many students find counterintuitive. A hypothesis can be both valid and wrong. Over the course of a school year, I will repeatedly ask my students if a hypothesis can be wrong and be valid because it is important.

Writing A Hypothesis

Then, when we begin working on writing hypotheses. I teach my students to use the “If….Then…Because…” format. I always keep the format the same. This makes the scientific method easier to learn because this step is never changes and makes it easier for students to focus on the science content.

The Variables

Next, I teach my students about variables by writing the definitions and linking them to my hypothesis and the If, Then, Because format.

Independent variable: The variable you change
The ‘If’ statement identifies the independent variable/s (what the student changes).
Letting go of the pen is the independent variable.

Dependent variable: The variable you measure
The ‘Then’ statement identifies the dependent variable/s (what the student measures).
What happens to the pen is the dependent variable.

Next we go over the control variable.
Control variable: What you must keep the same
The height and force that the pen is let go with must be the same in every trial of the experiment.

The Reason

The ‘Because’ statement identifies the proposed reason “something” will happen. This should be based on their background knowledge that you have already taught them.
The force of gravity is the proposed reason.

Putting It All Together

The ‘If’ statement identifies the independent variable/s (what the student changes).
The ‘Then’ statement identifies the dependent variable/s (what the student measures).
The ‘Because’ statement identifies the proposed reason “something” will happen.

What I do in the next class is to have students practice identifying variables in various experiments. Generally, elementary students will be better at identifying control variables than discriminating between independent and dependent variables. That is fine. Expect them to struggle initially and give them regular practice. They will improve. You will improve in your explanations and examples too! Hypotheses are tricky. Work at them and practice it with your students.

Research Apértif: Retrieval Practice, with or without Mind Mapping, Boosts Fact Learning in Primary School Children

According to, an apértif is a small drink of alcoholic liqueur taken to stimulate the appetite before a meal. This research apértif is likewise designed to stimulate your mind’s appetite.

If you enjoy the appetizer, click-through at the bottom of the page for the main course!

Background Research/Lit Review

1. Most experimental evidence for retrieval practice is with adults. Most studies with children have been with children aged 11 and up.
2. Retrieval practice can be effectively incorporated into the curriculum w/ low/no-stakes quizzing . Retrieval practice has been shown to be beneficial for 6th grade students (aged 11-12) performance on delayed exams.
3. retrieval practice has been shown to be effective w/ children aged 6-14 for learning nonsense syllables and biographical material.
4. Retrieval Practice helps with learning fictional map locations compared to ‘study only’ in children aged 9-11
5. Concept mapping can be combined with retrieval practice for better results than concept mapping or retrieval practice alone (undergraduate students)

Experiment Setup

1. Students aged 8-12
2. Used simple mind mapping
3. Cross-factorial design to test effects of retrieval practice and mind mapping and their combination
Experiment 1
1. 109 students
2. The number of facts recorded in the learning phase was significantly related to the final test score
3. Retrieval practice group recalled more facts than the non-retrieval practice group.
4. Mind maps did not improve results for retrieval practice group. But mind maps did improve results for non-retrieval practice group

Experiment 1 Discussion

1. Retrieval practice effect is reliably found in elementary school children
2. Children in retrieval practice group had significantly higher recall after 4 days than the non-retrieval practice group
3. Mind mapping is more effective than note-taking, but less effective compared to retrieval practice. And mind mapping does not improve retrieval practice in elementary aged students.

Experiment 2 Setup (replication of experiment 1)

1. 209 students aged 8-12
2. shorter learning phase, interval between learning and testing phase=1 week
3. Final test after 5 weeks to assess longer-term outcomes

Experiment 2

1. Retrieval practice group recalled significantly more facts than the non-retrieval practice group
2. Retrieval practice alone was more effective than retrieval practice with mind mapping and mind mapping alone after both 1 week and 5 weeks

Experiment 2 Discussion

1. Elementary teachers would benefit their students by including retrieval practice in the curriculum.
2. Retrieval practice improves elementary student fact recall better than mind mapping
3. Mind mapping with retrieval practice does not improve learning in elementary students
4. Retrieval practice groups recalled 8.5% more facts than the non-retrieval group on the final assessment 5 weeks later

Link to Article

Retrieval Practice, with or without Mind Mapping, Boosts Fact Learning in Primary School Children


Ritchie SJ, Della Sala S, McIntosh RD (2013) Retrieval practice, with or without mind mapping, boosts fact learning in primary school children. PLoS ONE 8(11): e78976.

Research Apértif: Guided Retrieval Practice of Educational Materials Using Automated Scoring

According to, an apértif is a small drink of alcoholic liqueur taken to stimulate the appetite before a meal. This research apértif is likewise designed to stimulate your mind’s appetite.

If you enjoy the appetizer, click-through at the bottom of the page for the main course!

Background Research/Lit Review

1. Retrieval practice improves long-term simple learning (lists, word pairs) and long-term complex learning (concepts, inferential questions).
2. Retrieval practice improves performance on conceptual and inferential questions.
3. Retrieving an item successfully just two times produces large gains in long-term memory.
4. Low-stakes quizzing (retrieval practice) in/out of the classroom can improve performance.
5. Effectiveness of retrieval practice outside of the classroom depends on students’ ability to monitor and regulate their own learning. Students struggle to regulate their own learning!
6. Students are unaware of retrieval practice’s benefits.
7. Students do not choose repeated retrieval.
8. When students choose to study with retrieval practice, they cannot accurately assess if their answer is right or wrong. (They believe they retrieved a correct answer even when it was false!)

Experiments and Findings

1. Authors created QuickScore to automatically, objectively grade retrieval practice on human anatomy.
2. Experiments examined the effects of repeated study vs repeated retrieval.
3. Final test given after 2 days.
4. 68 Purdue undergraduate students participated.

Experiment 1a and 1b Findings

1. Performance topped off after 4th session for both repeated study and repeated retrieval (initial learning is ~the same rate)
2. For the final test (after 2 days), in both experiments, students in the repeated retrieval condition (70% correct) outperformed those in the repeated study condition (55% correct).
3. False negatives (wrongly marked incorrect by QuickScore) increased learning because it resulted in additional exposure & retrieval chances.
4. QuickScore is significantly better at assessing student performance than students themselves are.

Link to Article

Guided Retrieval Practice of Educational Materials Using Automated Scoring


Grimaldi, P. J., & Karpicke, J. D. (2013, June 24). Guided Retrieval Practice of Educational Materials Using Automated Scoring. Journal of Educational Psychology. Advance online publication. doi: 10.1037/a0033208