Insights from Learning as a Generative Activity: What is Learning? Part 2

In the last post, I explored different definitions of learning and how the ability to transfer or achieve generalized understanding will often be the end goal of an instructional sequence. This table provides a helpful summary:

kirchner vs fiorella and Mayer

What is Generative Learning?


Fiorella and Mayer’s book explores a number of effective learning techniques, each of which are intended to produce meaningful learning. They express concern about the ‘passive experience’ of reading books, watching videos and attending lectures, all of which may result in ‘suboptimal learning’. The medium in which the content is being presented is not the issue here, instead the concern seems aimed at a failure to combine the medium with a sense making process of some kind where the content is manipulated and processed effectively by the learner.

Asking a student to read a text will not necessarily result in learning: it is how they process the content that matters.

Let’s take reading a book as an example: text is often the most efficient way of presenting complex, abstract information and a school that asks students to read frequently and widely is clearly doing the right thing. However, reading in order to learn is qualitatively different from reading for pleasure. When we read for pleasure, reading is about escapism, joy, inspiration and imagination and while we may learn much from the experience, often learning is not the primary goal of the activity.

other minds

As an example, I recently read Other Minds: The Octopus, The Sea and The Deep Origins of Consciousness by Peter Godfrey Smith, a fascinating book that explores the evolution and intelligence of cephalopods, and while I enjoyed it immensely and thought that I was learning a lot whilst reading it (I knew next to nothing about cephalopods before picking the book up), I’m sure that the experience was a suboptimal learning experience.

Even though I would have employed many of the strategies that are seen as the hallmark of skilled reading-and I’m sure that these would have helped me to understand the content whilst I was reading it-I didn’t deliberately accompany my reading with any of the effective learning techniques that Fiorella and Mayer explore. In this sense, my experience of reading it could be described as ‘passive’.

When a text is used as focal point of a learning situation (and for many subjects this should be the norm), the actual reading part should be accompanied by specific tasks as directed by the teacher. These tasks will ask students to engage in sense making and will involve all three stages of cognitive processing that Learning as a Generative Activity explores:

  1. Selecting relevant information to attend to
  2. Organising the material into a coherent cognitive structure in working memory
  3. Integrating it with relevant prior knowledge activated from long term memory

All three stages of cognitive processing are essential to generative learning and the absence of a particular stage will almost certainly preclude engagement with another. At one level, the stages can be seen as hierarchical as each depends upon the other in a sequence: the process of learning may begin with ‘selecting’ and proceed towards ‘integrating’ the new content with long term memory. Expressed using synonymous terms, learning begins with encoding, then becomes consolidated and is then stored.

However, this does not mean that the three stages occur in a strict, fixed sequence as each process will inevitably influence another. For example, your prior knowledge-a concept mentioned in the ‘integrating’ stage-will directly influence what you pay attention to when dealing with new information, thereby having an influence over the ‘selecting’ stage. If, as an expert, you are reading an extract from Macbeth, you are far more likely to notice and select the salient information than someone who has never studied Shakespeare before.

Let’s look at each stage in turn:

  1. Selecting relevant information to attend to

Ensuring that students pay attention to what is being taught is a fundamental aspect of teaching and learning: if students don’t pay attention, then no learning will happen at all.

As Samuel Johnson pointed out: ‘The true art of memory is the art of attention. If the mind is employed on the past or the future, the book will be held before the eyes in vain.’

The idea of attention is wide ranging. At one level, it is used to refer to general motivation and behaviour and whether a student is engaging-in a general sense-with the lesson. At another, it refers to the precise interaction between teacher, content and learner and whether the learner is focusing on the exact things that the teacher intends.

What happens if students fail to ‘select’ the relevant information?

If students fail to ‘select’ the relevant information, then this will effectively preclude them from engaging in the second two stages of cognitive processing: you cannot organize information into a coherent cognitive structure in working memory or integrate it with prior knowledge if ‘it’ is absent.

If students select the wrong information and use this information within a sense making process, then this will potentially be even worse: unlearning or unpicking misconceptions will often take far longer than learning things for the first time.

What can we do to ensure that students select the relevant information?

If we accept that the first stage of Fiorella and Mayer’s conception of learning is crucial and that failure to select the correct information will hinder or completely prevent learning from happening, then teachers need to ensure that all students-not just the high attainers-are able to do so.

In Direct Instruction programmes, all details of instruction are controlled  in order to minimise student misinterpretation and to maximise learning. This ensures that students always select the relevant information to attend to. DI programmes are based upon ‘faultless communication’, a state that is achieved through a number of techniques, approaches and processes. Firstly, lessons are scripted in order to prevent instructional and conceptual confusion; secondly, examples and non-examples  are carefully sequenced and thirdly, learning tasks are atomised and overtised so that learners pretty much cannot fail to select and practice what is relevant.

Although most normal lessons do not use DI schemes, if the principles mentioned above are considered and adhered to when planning sequences of learning, then students are far more likely to ‘select’ what is relevant and pay attention to what is important.

The optimal instructional procedure for ensuring that students will select the relevant information will also depend upon the prior knowledge of the student.  This is why the three stages of learning should probably not be seen as strictly sequential: they influence and depend upon each other. Students with less prior knowledge will benefit from a more directed and scaffolded approach to their more knowledgeable peers.

Let’s look at an example:

Imagine you are reading a two page non-fiction article about nostalgia as a preparation for reading the poem Émigrée. Each student has a copy of the article, the teacher has a visualizer and projector and everyone follows when someone is reading. At the end of the article there are two text-dependent questions that you want students to answer:

1) From the first page, list five psychological benefits of nostalgia

2) From the second page, explain the effects of nostalgia. Your answer should contain at least 3 effects

Assuming that motivation and behaviour are good and that your class contains students with sufficient prior knowledge, you could merely ask them to read it in silence and then answer the questions, safe in the knowledge that the breadth of their vocabulary and reading proficiency will mean that they will (hopefully) select the information required to answer the questions.

With a class of students who might struggle, you could do something like this:

  1. Read the whole text out loud to them, adding annotations (all students do the same on their copy) to explain vocabulary and asking lots of questions to check for understanding.
  2. Read the text again, stopping just past where the first psychological benefit can be found.
  3. Ask a student to read the question: ‘From the first page, list five psychological benefits of nostalgia.
  4. Check that everyone understands the question: add annotations to ‘psychology/benefit/nostalgia’
  5. Put red brackets around the section where the first benefit can be found
  6. Ask all students to reread the bracketed section in silence and underline the benefit
  7. Ask a student for feedback and underline your text under the visualizer.
  8. Ask lots of questions about the answer and give further annotations and elaborations about what is being underlined
  9. Ask all students to check that they have the same underlined answer and annotations as you.
  10. Repeat steps 2-9 for the next benefit.

By following this step by step approach, it is far more likely that all students will ‘select’ the relevant information than if you had adopted the same approach as the class with higher prior knowledge.

Successfully ‘selecting’ information is also dependent on being able to discriminate between ‘what is important from what is not.’ When learning a new concept, a student needs to understand its breadth and boundaries in order to fully understand it and this can be achieved through the careful sequencing and manipulation of examples and non-examples.

The intention of both the step by step approach and the manipulation of examples is to explicitly teach students what they need to do in order to successfully select information. Once this has been taught, the instructional support should be faded so that students eventually have to determine what is important and what is not without assistance.

What happens if students fail to ‘organise the material into a coherent cognitive structure in working memory’?

If students fail to organise the material in their working memory, then they will be unable to make any sense of it as they will quickly become confused or give up. When this happens, the incoming information will not be processed properly, effectively preventing it from being integrated with the relevant prior knowledge activated from long-term memory.

As teachers, we often forget what it is like to be confused by complex content but being overwhelmed by too much information is a common experience for many students.

Here is an example of something confusing, try reading it:

In mathematical terms, Derrida’s observation relates to the invariance of the Einstein field equation under nonlinear space-time diffeomorphisms (self-mappings of the space-time manifold which are infinitely differentiable but not necessarily analytic). The key point is that this invariance group “acts transitively”: this means that any space-time point, if it exists at all, can be transformed into any other. In this way the infinite-dimensional invariance group erodes the distinction between observer and observed; the Pi of Euclid and the G of Newton, formerly thought to be constant and universal, are now perceived in their ineluctable historicity; and the putative observer becomes fatally de-centered, disconnected from any epistemic link to a space-time point that can no longer be defined by geometry alone.

When reading this, I become deeply confused before the end of the first sentence as there are multiple concepts that I do not understand. Because I cannot retrieve these concepts from long term memory, I quickly reach the limits of my working memory and become cognitively overloaded.

What can we do to ensure that students organise the material?

Effective teachers will take a number of steps to ensure that students are not overwhelmed by new material. Content should be broken down into manageable chunks and introduced at a rate that does not cause cognitive overload. Teachers should use worked examples as ‘schema substitutes’ so that novices are better able to solve problems. A teaching sequence should progress through a process of backwards fading where initial learning is modelled and scaffolded by the teacher, allowing the student to focus on one or fewer elements of a problem or task and preventing them from becoming confused by a task that has high element interactivity.

What happens if students fail to integrate information with relevant prior knowledge activated from long term memory?

If the new material is not integrated properly into long term memory, then it is unlikely to be retained by a student. If we accept that ‘learning is a change in long-term memory’, then a failure to integrate equates to a failure to learn.

What can we do to ensure that students integrate the material?

In order for new information to be successfully integrated into long term memory, a student needs to already possess the relevant prior knowledge to connect it to. To understand complex and abstract ideas, a learner often needs to understand the concepts that underpin them: if these subordinate concepts are not understood, it is likely that the higher order concept will not be fully understood.


There is a good example of this problem in this video clip. Upon being asked what it is that we feel when we hold two magnets that repel each other, Richard Feynman tells the reporter that he cannot explain the answer any further as his explanation would involve nothing at all that connects to the reporter’s prior knowledge: it would be at a level of complexity and abstraction that would be incomprehensible.

As teachers, we should be spending much of our time building student background knowledge and teaching high-utility vocabulary, content and approaches to writing. If prior knowledge is lacking, then we need to teach it!

When teaching abstract ideas, teachers should ensure that they are exemplified through concrete examples.

Let’s look at an example:

Imagine you are teaching the concept of ‘ignominy’, a word that we teach in year 9 when students study the jingoistic poem ‘Fall In’ by Harold Begbie. In order for this to be successful, you will need to be able explain the term using words that the student already understands, thereby beginning the integration with relevant prior knowledge. It can be helpful to start with a definition and example which can then be questioned and annotated.


Assuming that students understand the definition, the teacher could then ask questions like:

  1. What does shame and humiliation mean?
  2. Can you give me an example of something humiliating?
  3. What is the difference between public and private?
  4. ‘Funked’ means avoiding something because you’re scared. What do the onlookers think the character is scared of?
  5. Why is this seen as ignominious?
  6. Why does Begbie ask ‘where will you look.’?
  7. Orally complete these sentences from the start: Avoiding going to war would be seen as ignominious because…The poem suggests that cowardice will result in ignominy because…
  8. Complete these sentences in your books:  When Begbie says ‘where will you look’, he is hinting at ignominy because… The poem explores the ignominious consequences of cowardice so…

After this sequence, later lessons could then involve wider questions and practice to broaden student understanding above and beyond the initial context of the poem:

  1. Complete these sentences in your books: Liverpool’s defeat at Watford was ignominious because…Her mistakes were ignominiously announced to the whole class, so…

Understanding here refers to creating more meaningful connections between the new item (ignominy) and the student’s prior knowledge. The more connections that are made, the greater the depth of understanding.

If we want all students to succeed, then we should be explicitly teaching them the connections between different concepts and this can be done through extended quizzing, annotation  or elaboration

In the next post, I will look at Learning by Summarising, the first strategy that Fiorella and Mayer explore.

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