What is the generation effect?

The generation effect is a phenomenon observed in cognitive psychology in which people tend to remember things better when they participate in their generation, rather than just passively reading them. This has important implications when it comes to understanding how people learn. Knowledge of the gen effect can inform teaching style and can help a teacher when it comes to working with students who are struggling to learn material or who want study advice. This phenomenon has primarily been a topic of study with written communications, but researchers have also explored whether it works with images.

Tests on the generation effect show that when users encounter a list of words presented in the form of fragments, they will fill in the blanks to create the words in their entirety. In the process of generating the words, they engage various areas of the brain as they search for matching fragments to form the words. When they are asked to repeat the list later, their recall will be better. The researchers believe this is due to the deeper level of cognitive engagement involved in the process of creating new words.

For students, the generation effect can be important. If a student simply reads a textbook, she will not absorb the information as well as when she takes notes and recreates charts and other materials presented in the book. Students preparing for an exam may find it helpful to write down material from the text, restating in their own words as appropriate to ensure they fully understand the material. The simple act of writing can trigger the generation effect and help the student do better on exams.

Teachers and instructors should also be aware of the role that the generation effect can play in the classroom. Students who have just been given written material that they can read may not understand it as fully as students who engage with it by taking notes, completing writing exercises, etc. A common example of the generation effect at work can be seen in spelling lessons for young students. Instead of giving students a list of correctly spelled words and asking them to memorize them, the teacher can have students complete worksheets where they must fill in the blanks to spell the words.

Researchers examining the generation effect also note that it appears to be less strong in patients with cognitive impairment. While it may still be present and exercises like filling in the blanks will help subjects remember a list of words, it is not as powerful as it is in people who do not have cognitive impairments. This may help explain one of the ways that cognitive impairments impede learning and the acquisition or reacquisition of skills after brain injury.

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