Generating a Better Memory

By Heather Triplett and Patrick Haas

Studying can be something that is hard for students as they begin college. In high school you might have been able to pay attention in class and still get A’s without worrying about studying, or you might have just had to read the text and known everything that was going to be on the test. Yet, as we get older teachers and professors ask more difficult questions and expect you to know more information when it comes to test time. For each class in college your professor will ask you to purchase an expensive textbook, and read a certain chapter from the book to be prepared for class. These topics are no Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows people, these topics are dry definitions with no stories in them. So what can you do to make it easier to retain the information rather than just simply reading your textbook?

The generation effect is the improvement in memory by generating the information internally rather than by the stimuli (Reardon et. al. 1987). This basically means that after reading it or learning it in class you can put what you’ve learned into a real-life situation or onto paper. As college students, you are going to different types of information, definitions, equations, and other material for your majors. A lot of the time it is hard to remember all of it and even harder to remember it with the stress of good grades, parents, and your future weighing down on you before and during every test. But it has been proven in studies that there are improvements in memory when learners must complete and put together the material that they are trying to learn (Gardiner et. al. 1985). A way to help you remember the material using the generation effect is by making up your own questions as a study guide. This involves active engagement with the material, and strengthens encoding of the material. So when you are sitting there trying to understand a definition better in cognition don’t just read over and over again, “Flashbulb memory – memory for the circumstances surrounding hearing about shocking, highly charged events,” (Goldstein 2015) try and make up a question such as “what type of memory is involved with shocking events in your life?” Or another example of generation effect is when you are going through a math equation, can you solve for x using your own numbers? If you can then you are more likely to remember what steps you took and be able to apply them to your test question.

So how can the generation effect help you? According to Lutz, Briggs, and Cain, researchers from East Carolina University, the generation effect is prevalent in many study guide exercises. An example of this is where the study guide asks you to complete sentences by using a list of words, this is done so that the words are within the appropriate context. This is because relating words to a larger context, elaboration, might allow for the generation effect to occur even with low meaningful word (Lutz et. al. 2003). The generation effect does not work well with unfamiliar words so we suggest that you use it after reading and attending lecture (Lutz 2003). This ensures that the material you are studying is familiar and allows you to be successful in using this effect. The generation effect works best when studying for a multiple choice exams (Lutz). This is great for you because many of the exams that you will encounter are either all multiple choice or mostly multiple choice.

“I’ve been doing fine without your ‘Generation Effect,’ why should I add more work when I can just read and be done with studying?” Well, the study that I am about to go over is going to explain why this is going to help you get better grades in school, especially now that you are in college and the material is much more advanced. It’s not that easy to get that 4.0 GPA anymore.

After you finally decide on what university or college you want to attend you normally pick what you want to study and what you want to become an “expert” on for the next four years. This decision will help ignite the generation effect and help you with your study habits. In a study done by Reardon, Durso, Foley, and Mcgahan they find that people show the largest generation effect in their area of expertise. Their study compared people who were experts in their field compared to people who weren’t in the field at all and the results of who showed a stronger generation effect were in favor of people who were experts. The researchers provided subjects sentences without a key word and they were to rate how well they knew each concept from one to seven(seven being high and one being low). They had ten seconds to answer each concept, and had a total of 72 concepts to answer. The experts were superior to the people unfamiliar subjects but a great amount, because of their ability to use their generation effect in a short time (Reardon). The point of explaining this study to you all is that by being able to understand the concept without the main word is key to doing well in the tests you take. These people were able to generate the words needed to succeed without seeing the word at all. This sounds like a typical vocab test and when you understand the vocab you are able to explain it even more so when it comes to multiple choice questions and especially short answer questions. You may not even realize it yet but if you want to succeed in your field you need to become an expert, and know things from bare minimum information. Don’t you worry though in a study done by Taconnat and Isingrini they discovered that with age your generation effect is easier established and easier to use. So you need to make sure you are using the generation effect when it comes to studying and being able to understand what you need to know because it will come in handy for tests and further down the line in your career.

A counter argument to the generation effect. Oh no! In Staniland, Colombo and Scarfs experiment with pigeons they tested to see if the knowledge that was obtained was through the generation effect or training. Their study was similar to Kornell and Terrace’s study with rhesus monkeys. While the results were not similar between the two studies, they still argued that the act of performing the task was not due to knowledge but due to the training thus allowing the pigeons to rehearse the task. This is not necessarily true and this really pertains to physical tasks and not testing like we are discussing here.

The generation effect is a helpful tool to studying and learning information that is needed for a test. You are past the point where reading and paying attention is enough to get through school. Now you should make your own study guides to assist you in studying. So take the information you have and write it out into your own words, make questions that you understand a little more, or even just make connections that helps you connect concepts together. Take the little extra time that is needed to help you boost that C to a B, or even that C to an A.


Reardon.R, Durso F.T., Foley M., & McGahan, J. (1987). Expertise and the generation effect. Social Cognition, 5(4), 336-348. doi:  10.1521/soco.1987.5.4.336

Lutz. J., Briggs, A.,& Cain, K. (2003). An examination of the value of the generation effect for learning new material. The Journal of General Psychology, 130 (2), 171-188. doi:

Staniland, J., Colombo, M., & Scarf, D., (2015). The generation effect of simply generating an effect?. Journal of Comparative Psychology, 129 (4), 329-333. doi:

Taconnat, T., Isingrini, M. (2004). Cognitive operation in the generation effect on a recall test: role of aging and divided attention. Journal of Experimental Psychology, 30(4), 827-837. doi: 10.1037/0278-7393.30.4.827

Gardiner, J.M., Hampton, J.A., (1985).  Semantic memory and the generation effect: some tests of the lexical activation hypothesis. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, memory, and cognition, 11(4), 732-741. doi: 0278-7393/85/$00.75

Goldstein, B.E. (2015). Cognitive Psychology: Connecting mind, research, and everyday experience: Cengage Learning.

One Reply to “Generating a Better Memory”

  1. I really like the approach you took on your blog post by focusing in on just the Generation Effect and going in depth with it and how it relates to studying. I thought that your use of examples was well done and it made me understand more clearly what you were trying to accomplish in your post. Additionally, I thought it was interesting how you included a rebuttal argument and showed how your thinking was superior; I thought it added more credibility to your argument. However, after reading the post, I still felt like I wasn’t persuaded that the Generation Effect method of studying was better than memorizing information over time. From what I gathered from your study, I think I could sit and memorize the terms for short sessions daily over a week and achieve the same level of knowledge as someone using the Generation Effect. Maybe in the future, you could add a paragraph explaining more about putting the information learned from textbooks and class lectures into real life situations that apply specifically to your own life and how that makes you remember things better. Then, you could add even further to your credibility with another personal example of a time when you understood the information that way and succeeded in understanding those terms. You could also think about creating a small study on your own where one person studies by memorization and another studies by the generation effect principle, make them take the same test, and then compare their results. Overall, I thought this post was very well done and had an interesting take on how best to study for a test, but in the future, the writers could benefit from adding in a little more information and conducting their own experiment.

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