As a new academic season has just begun, now is the perfect time to cultivate good learning habits in your students. A good place to start is to look at techniques that are consistently supported by research. One such approach that has been backed up by science for over 40 years is "generative learning".
So what is generative learning, and why is it so effective? Let’s take a closer look…
What is generative learning?
Generative learning is the process of making meaningful connections between new information and pre-existing knowledge. In short, your students can use what they already know to help them learn new content. The idea here is that by integrating new knowledge with learned information, it can then be transferred into their long-term memory more efficiently and effectively.
Another important part of Generative Learning Theory is that the learning process is active. So, passively receiving information isn't what leads to your students understanding it; it is actively making associations, recalling information, then organising and elaborating on it that helps them to have improved comprehension. In practice, your students can actively learn by making connections between new information and learned information, then transforming this into a memorable format.
How to use generative learning in your lessons
Generative learning strategies are simple tools that can keep your students engaged when you teach – you may even be using some of them already. Here are some practical techniques that can elevate your lessons:
Summarising requires students to reflect on what they have just learned and then re-phrase the most relevant information in their own words. A classic study showed that students who summarised a piece of text with a sentence above each paragraph had a better comprehension of the text than students who did not summarise.
This strategy is generative as your students can relate new information to what they have already learned to make it more memorable. For this strategy to work best, they would need guidance on how to summarise, as simply copying words from the text is ineffective.
Mapping is defined as turning words into a spatial representation. Common examples are mind maps, tables, and graphs. Making links between content from different lessons, comparing arguments, and expressing equations are some ways that your students can make the most out of mapping.
Research has shown that it is beneficial for improving performance in comprehension tests. However, it is easy for students to get caught up in how their maps look or what to include, which can distract them from the task. To avoid this, you can provide pre-made mapping tools and give guidance as to which information is most appropriate to include in a map.
Drawing is another way to boost generative learning so that your students have a deeper understanding of what you teach. Drawing requires students to focus on which information they should represent, what they should omit, and how to best represent the information in an image. This strengthens memory traces to make new information easier to retrieve in the future.
A 2010 study showed that when students were given a passage of text to learn, the group that made drawings related to the passage outperformed students who only read the text. Similar to mapping, it is important that students don’t get caught up in the details of drawing, as this increases cognitive load, which can hinder learning. To reduce this, you can give prompts to students, such as including pre-drawn elements on a sheet and giving feedback.
Forming a mental representation of new information is surprisingly beneficial for learning. An example is tasking your students to imagine the process of digestion by creating mental pictures of each step. Research has demonstrated that imagining step-by-step processes is more effective for learning than only reading about them when learners are given specific mental imaging prompts.
This technique is most helpful for students who are more confident with the knowledge, as imagining can be overwhelming when a student is unsure about the content.
Self-testing is one of the most highly effective ways to learn, so it is worth setting aside time in your lessons for students to study with this technique. It is a form of retrieval practice, which results in the long-term retention of knowledge. Some examples include using flashcards, past papers, and quick-fire quizzes. This approach is generative because actively recalling information from memory helps to strengthen connections between new information and learned material.
A study that nicely illustrates this gave a short passage of reading to a group of students where they were split into a “re-reading” or “self-testing” group. The re-reading group initially outperformed the self-testing group on a test – however, after a 2-day delay, the self-testing group performed better than the re-reading group. This trend was also present after a 3-week delay, showing the positive impact of retrieval practice on long-term memory. Self-testing works best when it is repeated, there is immediate corrective feedback and the format mimics the final test.
Like self-testing, self-explaining requires students to recall new information, but this time by explaining it themselves in their own words. This ensures that your students understand what they learn rather than repeat back what they have read or heard. Through self-explaining they can appeal to material that they already know to justify a method or argument, focus on the most relevant information, and reflect on their learning.
Research has shown that self-explaining increases test results that measure deep understanding, and this is seen across different age groups. This method may be most impactful for maths and science which can have more complex explanations. However, it can also be useful for humanities subjects in which students can re-explain concepts that they have read in a way that makes sense to them.
Known as the Protégé Effect, teaching new concepts to others is a great tool for your students’ own learning, and can be a fun class activity.
Teaching each other does not necessarily mean that students stand up in front of a class and deliver a lesson; group discussions and collaborating with peers are other teaching methods. When your students generate meaningful answers by to questions when teaching each other they can thoroughly understand content, leading to long-term retention.
You may ask: “what is a meaningful answer?” It is a relevant response that involves choosing the most relevant information, expressing it in a coherent way, and elaborating on it when needed.
Enacting is a highly useful for younger children because it incorporates learning with real-world interactions. So, this may be most appropriate for an early years classroom. The most highly researched examples are gestures and object movement:
- Using body movement to represent information in children has been shown to reduce cognitive load when learning, because making a gesture means that they don’t need to think as much when remembering new things.
- Object movement refers to placing objects in particular positions to symbolise new knowledge; for example, moving figurines in a sequence that represents a story. Research has shown that children are better able to remember passages of text when they are connected to object movement.
Enacting is only effective when learners understand what they have learned, because it’s difficult to translate what they do not understand into meaningful gestures or object movements. So, repeatedly practising object sequences and body movements with children is key for making enactment an effective learning tool. Also, both types of movement need clear guidance so that they focus on learning rather than getting distracted by the process.
All the above strategies achieve the benefits of generative learning in varied ways, so now it’s up to you to choose which of these you think are most appropriate for your classes. What makes them all effective is that students choose the most relevant points to include, structure these coherently, and relate them to existing knowledge. When implemented in the correct way, generative learning can really boost your students’ overall performance.