What Is the Generation Effect?

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  • Written By: Mary McMahon
  • Edited By: Nancy Fann-Im
  • Last Modified Date: 12 October 2019
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The generation effect is a phenomenon observed in cognitive psychology where people tend to remember things better when they participated in their generation, rather than just passively reading them. This has important implications when it comes to understanding how people learn. Awareness of the generation effect can inform teaching style and may help a teacher when it comes to working with students who have difficulty learning material or who want study tips. 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 full. In the process of generating the words, they engage several areas of the brain while they search for fragments that would match up to make the words. When they are asked to repeat the list later, their recall will be better. Researchers believe this is because of 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 examination may find it helpful to write out material from the text, rephrasing in their own words as appropriate to make sure they fully understand the material. The simple act of writing can trigger the generation effect and help the student perform better on examinations.

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

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


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