It’s Not a Generation Thing: The Generation Effect

By Sydni Neal

The Generation Effect

For individuals wishing to improve their grades on tests and quizzes, the generation effect may come in handy. The generation effect, an effective memory strategy which allows an individual to remember information better, is rather simple to take advantage of. The generation effect is simply the act of creating, or generating, information and materials that an individual needs to remember in order to enhance the process of encoding within the memory. However, according to research, the effectiveness and usefulness of the generation effect is different depending on the situation, but, as a whole, is an effect study method.


One study completed by Rosner, Elman, and Shimamura (1), tested the generation effect by using a prototypical memory exercise. Within their study, participants were shown related word pairings in the series of the cue word and the word fragment (e.g., QUARREL-F_GHT). Participants were then asked to complete the second word in each pair. Individuals in the control group, however, were given completed word-pairings and were asked to simply read them. After the trials were completed, individuals were tested to see whether they recognized the second word in each pair as well as how confident they were in their pairings. Along with this, participants had their brains scanned during the study period as well as during the testing in order to identify the neural substrates that underlie the generation effect.

The results indicated that the generation effect significantly increased participants’ memory and confidence of the second word on the word-pairing compared to those that only read the word pairings. According to the study, the hit rate for those using the generation effect was 22% higher than the hit rate for individuals that simply read the words. When taking confidence of their memory into account, those who used the generation effect were 74% more confident that they remembered the word correctly. According to the neurological FMRI data recorded during both the study session and the testing session, the area of the brain more than-likely responsibly for the increased memory and confidence caused by the generation effect is that of the medial-frontal network.

Similar results were found for the recall of generated numbers rather than words (2). Gardiner and Rowley tested to see if individuals who solved simple multiplication tables and, therefore, generated numbers would be able to recall those numbers better than those that simply read the numbers. Their results, similar to that of Rosner, Elman, and Shimamura (1), indicated that there was a significant difference in recall between those that simply read the numbers and those that generated the numbers through means of multiplication tables (2). According to Gardiner and Rowley, these results indicate that, just as with words, generating the information helps to enhance the activation of the semantic features, or the actual meaning, of the word’s representation in the subjective lexicon, otherwise known as an individual’s vocabulary. This can be, therefore, translated to numbers as well. Generating numbers helps individuals enhance the meaning or amount within an individual’s lexicon of numbers and allows for better recall.

Another pair of researchers conducted a series of experiments in order to see if the generation effect can happen in naturalistic setting rather than only in the laboratory setting (3). Carrol and Nelson ran seven different experiments in order to see where the generation effect would be the most effective in different types of naturalistic settings. They began with having individuals generate answers to general-information questions. Their presumption that individuals would have to generate, or learn, the information on their own rather than just being told the answer would cause them to remember the information for a longer amount of time. However, it was found that this was not the case for their participants. There was no significant difference between individuals who were simply told the information and those that had to generate the information one week later.

In their second through seventh experiments, Carrol and Nelson tried numerous different ways to apply the generation effect to general-information questions that may be found in a naturalistic setting, such as the classroom. However, as in experiment one, experiments two through seven once again resulted in no significant differences between those who were asked to generate their own information and those who were simply given the answer. While it may seem that the generation effect, therefore, does not work in a naturalistic setting, Carrol and Nelson provided a couple of possibilities as to why the generation effect did not work in their study as it does in other studies. One possibility is that because the participants were unfamiliar with the information before learning it, the generation effect may not have been as effective. According to other research on the generation effect, in order for the generation effect to be truly useful, the information has to already be known or understood by the individual. Therefore, because the participants did not know the information before incorporating the generation effect, in was not effective.

Another possibility Carrol and Nelson provided was the idea of effort put into learning the information. The more an individual is willing to learn the information and the more important the information is to the individual learning it, the better the generation effect will work. However, when they tried to make their experiment a little more effort-inducing, they still did not yield a significant generation effect. Carrol and Nelson reasoned at the end of their research that they are not denying the idea that the generation effect does indeed exist; however, they argue that there is a possibility, according to their research, that it only exists in a laboratory setting when certain conditions are controlled for.

According to research conducted by Burns, Curti, and Lavin (4), the generation effect inhibits the processing of serial order information, but enhances the processing of item-specific information. Within their study, they conducted similar experiments to that of Rosner, Elman, and Shimamura which revolved around the idea of completing words after being given cue-words; however, they specifically controlled for the differing difficulties in their experiments, the order of the information given, as well as how much time passed before participants were asked to recall the information (4).

Their results indicated that, while difficulty did not significantly affect simply reading the words or generating the words, simply reading the words helped individuals remember the order in which it was presented, but not the specificity of the words. However, when generating the words, participants were able to more easily recognize the words, but were not able to recall the order in which the words were presented correctly. Additionally, the time between reading or generation and recall did not have a significant effect on the participant’s memory.

Further research has been done on why serial recall is better for simply read items but word-specific retention is better for generated items (5). According to Serra and Nairne, there is a tradeoff involved in the recall of read words and generated words. Serra and Nairne found in their experiments that recall is enhanced by the more information an individual knows about the topic, but this improvement cannot be used because their output strategy is impaired. Serra and Nairne argue that this is because participants must devote more of their energy to generating the correct answer than simply reading the word including its place in the list. Therefore, when recalling the information, participants who generated the word are typically incorrect about the order in which they generated the word because that was not the focus of their attention at the time. On the other hand, participants that simply read the word were able to pay more attention to the order in which they read the word and, therefore, have better recall for serial information.

While the research on the generation effect may seem to contradict, a few things have been made clear according to the results. The generation effect is not effective at helping an individual recall things in a naturalistic setting—therefore, if you aren’t already familiar with the information, the generation effect will not help you recall it better (3). However, if you are familiar with the information, whether it’s words or numbers, it has been proven that the generation does in fact aid in recalling information (1, 2). If you’re trying to recall information in serial order, however, the generation effect will not will not be much of an aid (4). Overall, though, the generation effect is a proven and effective tool for helping students study and should be used when possible.

different ways to use the generation effect:
  • Note-cards
  • Word Webs
  • Writing out summuries
  • Fill-in-the-blanks
  • Writing your own questions and answering them
  • Teach someone else in your own words








  • Rosner, Z., A., Elman, J., A., & Shimamura, A., P. (2013). The generation effect: activating broad neural circuits during memory encoding. Cortex, 49(7): 1901-1909 DOI: 10.1016/j.cortex.2012.09.009
  • Gardiner, J., M., & Rowley, J., C. (1984). A generation effect with numbers rather than words. Memory & Cognition, 12(5): 443-445. Retrieved from
  • Burns, D., J., Curti, E., T., & James, C., L. (1993). The effects of generation on item and order retention in immediate and delayed recall. Memory & Cognition, 21(6): 846-852. Retrieved from
  • Carroll, M., & Nelson, T., O. (1993). Failure to obtain a generation effect during naturalistic learning. Memory & Cognition, 21(3), 361-366. Retrieved from
  • Serra, M., & Nairne, J., S. (1993). Design controversies and the generation effect: support for an iten-order hypothesis. Memory & Cognition (21)1: 34-40. Retrieved from

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.