Using the Generation Effect as Retrieval Practice: Some simple ideas for the classroom

The generation effect is the idea that information will be better retained in the long-term memory if it is actively generated rather than simply read. Cognitive scientist Robert Bjork (n.d.) argues that tasks getting pupils to generate words rather than merely reading them have a longer lasting and more robust impact on learning. For instance, learners are more likely to remember the word “orangutan” if they generate it from the cues “or_ng_ta_” as opposed to seeing or reading the word as a whole.

Other studies have also looked at the benefits of the generation effect in relation to mathematics, reading comprehension and general knowledge questions (see McNamara & Healy, 2000; Wittrock, 1989; DeWinstanley, 1995 respectively). Moreover, a meta-analysis of 85 academic studies found that the overall effect size of the typical generation tasks reviewed was d. = 0.4, which suggests a moderate (but significant) impact on learning (Bertsch, Pesta, Wiscott, & McDaniel, 2007). Common tasks found in the meta-analysis included letter stems, paired-associates, word cue pairs, number and letter bigrams and incomplete mathematical equations. 

In my own practice, I have started regularly using letter stems, word-cue pairs, anagrams (that are then used in other activities), opposites (the juxtaposition of key concepts) and even gap/word fills to generate retrieval: these are briefly outlined and exemplified below. 

Letter stems

Bjork (n.d.) gives the example of using letter stems, such as ‘fl____’ for ‘flower’, as cues for knowledge retrieval of vocabulary or key terms.  Here is a very simple example of letter stems used in a task recapping on family types in sociology:

  • Nu___________
  • Ex___________
  • Re___________
  • Si___________ ____________
  • Be___________
  • Ne_-_____________

(Answers: Nuclear, extended, reconstituted, single-parent, beanpole, neo-conventional)

Building on this idea, an exercise used to recall key Biblical quotes relevant to war and peace in Religious Education (RE) could include:

  • “Thou shalt not ki___”
  • “Bl__________ are the peacemakers”
  • “Those that live by the sw________ die by the sw________”
  • “Love thy en______”
  • “Turn the other ch_______”

(Answers: kill, blessed, sword, enemy and cheek)

Letter stems can be used on their own in word lists or scaffolded within gap/word fills. They could also be used in instructions or as prompts for other activities. It is important, however, to make sure that your cues are contextually relevant to the content being recapped, reviewed or taught; otherwise the cues are pretty pointless in terms of lesson content, but I assume that is self-evident.

Word-cue pairs

Word-cue pairs can be used to generate answers. A word-cue hints at the correct answer of a paired word and could include rhyme, categories, opposites, synonyms and associated words. For instance: 

  • A rhyme could be the pair book-c_______
  • A category could be chimpanzee-g______
  • An opposite could be large-s______
  • A synonym could be quiet-s______
  • An associate could be dark-n______

(Answers: cook, gorilla, small, silent and night)

In lessons recapping on Islamic beliefs, I might ask pupils to generate words from these cues:

  • Rhyme: Boot-r______
  • Category: Adam-m______
  • Opposite: Jannah – j_______
  • Synonym: Fate-p______
  • Associate: Omnipotent-a______

(Answers: Root – as in the 5 roots of Shia Islamic belief; Musa – as the category is prophethood; Jahannam (Arabic for Hell) – as Jannah is the opposite (Paradise/Heaven); pedestination – which is a synonym of fate; Allah – as God is omnipotent)

These generation tasks can be used as revision, “Do Nows” or reviews of learning (or, basically, as part of any activity that involves retrieval). They could include 5 word pairs focused on anyone of the example areas listed above or be mixed up to include all of them. 


Another form of generation discussed by Bjork involves anagrams, which have been used for years, but are additional ways of getting pupils to retrieve information from cues or hints. Some educators, such as Rosadi (2017), have found them to be beneficial for vocabulary acquisition, but they have uses in tasks that are embedding concepts through word association or contextual opposites as well. It is important to stress, however, that the anagrams are used to support or scaffold further tasks where the words/terms are used to answer questions or compose sentences; otherwise their use may well be superficial to deeper learning and longer term memory retention. 

For example, in Sociology I might set a very simple generative task aimed at retrieving key words (always as a warm up to another task) with these anagrams on functionalist views on the purpose of education:

  • Zcptselia slslik
  • Closai ardiioslyr
  • Iimn yoceist
  • Deevhica uasstt
  • Yrareimoct

(Answers: specialist skills, social solidarity, mini society, achieved status and meritocracy)

I will then ask pupils to: “Explain three purposes of education according to functionalists (6 marks) using the words you have unscrambled.” Here, the unscrambled words act as prompts to scaffold answers to a 6 mark exam question. (By the way, word processors often change the first letter of the anagram to a capital letter. I tend to leave them that way as the pupils say it makes it more difficult!)


Opposites also work here, for example, in RE I get pupils to figure out these opposites which are direct juxtapositions in terms of meanings or suggest opposite categories, such as male and female. Again, this is largely used as a short retrieval activity prior to a written activity. 

  • Good → _______?
  • Heaven → _______?
  • Adam → _______?
  • Eden → _______?
  • Life → _______?
  • Sin → _______?

(Answers: evil, Hell, Eve, fall, death, salvation) 

Pupils are then instructed to: “Answer this question ‘Explain two beliefs about Original Sin in Christianity’ (5 marks) using the words you have unscrambled.” Here, the words support pupils’ responses of a 5 mark GCSE question.

Opposites can also be combined with anagrams. For instance:

  • Ogod → lvei
  • Avheen → lelh
  • Amad → vee
  • Dnee → flla
  • Eifl → adhet
  • Nsi → lavaanits

(Answers as above)

This makes the generation of the opposites more difficult as pupils need to process the anagrams at the same time. It could, therefore, be seen as a desirable difficulty – an idea also emphasized by Elizabeth and Robert Bjork – that includes varying the conditions of learning, rather than keeping them constant and predictable. 

Gap/word fills

Some people question the use of gap/word fills as they are often used as banal time fillers. However, if they are used constructively to scaffold the generation of meaningful words or terms, then evidence suggests there is a positive impact on learning. For example, studies looking at the recall of specific words within texts have found that participants who were required to generate contextually relevant “target words” in a paragraph had better memory for those words than for target words that were simply read in the text (DeWinstanley & Bjork , 2004; Little, Storm & Bjork, 2011). (It is worth noting that the Bjork cited here is Elizabeth, not Robert.)

Like many teachers, I often use short gap/word fills that allow pupils to generate key words from the contextual cue of the sentence. These occasionally include letter stems too. Here is an example without letter stems from a sociology activity on the family:

“Peter Willmott and Michael Young (1973) argued that over time the division of __________ in the family has become more __________________ as ___________________ roles have become more equal and less segregated.”

(Answers: labour, symmetrical and conjugal)

The above sentence may form part of a larger paragraph or a series of sentences. Pupils will also need to develop the text with their own response, which is often evaluative. The word fill acts as prompt to this part of the task.

Other ideas

  • Cryptic crosswords 
  • Arranging words, numbers or pictures in particular orders
  • Patterns (literally, looking for patterns)
  • Summarisation of concepts, processes or events via word cues/visual cues

Generation effect or generative learning?

Zoe and Mark Esner published a popular book last year on ‘generative learning’, which is based on the work of Fiorella and Mayer (2016) and is well worth reading. Although very similar, the generation effect and generative learning are slightly different in that the former focuses on the initial processing of key information, especially the recognition and retrieval of key words, terms and concepts, whereas the latter focuses on using that information for more complicated tasks or processes. Of course, the two concepts do not necessarily need to be seen in isolation as one can build upon the other or simply be seen as codifying and extending a mutually good idea. For a summary of generative learning by Mark Esner, read here

Word of caution

As with everything based on cognitive science, a lot of research used to back the generation effect up is based on small scale studies often using adult learners. Any application of these ideas would also need to consider context, learning ability and cognitive load.

That said, the evidence suggests this is a concept that can be explored and developed further by teachers, especially as retrieval practice. To be honest, it also seems common sense.  

References (unless hyperlinked)

Bertsch, S., Pesta, B. J., Wiscott, R., & McDaniel, M. A. (2007). The generation effect: A meta-analytic review. Memory & Cognition, 35(2), 201-210.

Bjork, R. (n.d.). Applying cognitive psychology to enhance educational practice. Retrieved from: [09.05.2020].

DeWinstanley, P. A. (1995). A generation effect can be found during naturalistic learning. Psychonomic Bulletin & Review, 2(4), 538-541. 

DeWinstanley, P.A., Bjork, E.L. (2004) Processing strategies and the generation effect: Implications for making a better reader. Memory & Cognition 32, 945–955.

Fiorella, L. and Mayer, R. E. (2016). Eight ways to promote generative learning. Educational Psychology Review 28(4) pp. 717 – 741.

Bjork, E. L., Storm, B. C., & deWinstanley, P. A. (2011). Learning from the consequences of retrieval: Another test effect. In A. S. Benjamin (Ed.), Successful remembering and successful forgetting: A festschrift in honor of Robert A. Bjork (pp. 347–364). Psychology Press.

McNamara, D. S., & Healy, A. F. (2000). A procedural explanation of the generation effect for simple and difficult multiplication problems and answers. Journal of Memory and Language, 43, 652-679. 

Rosadi, A. (2017). The effectiveness of anagram technique in teaching vocabulary. Voices of English Language Education Society. 1(1).

Young, M. D., & Willmott, P. (1973). The symmetrical family: A study of work and leisure in the London region. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.

Wittrock, M. C. (1989). Generative processes of comprehension. Educational Psychologist, 24, 345-376.

This article uses material from the “Generation Effect” article on the Psychology Wiki at Fandom and is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike License.

Picture credit: (used under a Creative Commons Licence)

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