Generative Learning: A teacher's guide

Paul Main

Generative Learning in action: How can teacher's use this model for developing deeper understanding?

What is Generative Learning?

Generative Learning is based upon the theory that the learning process depends upon the memory and knowledge that already exists in our minds. When new data is integrated into our long-term memory, it becomes part of our understanding.

The theory of generative learning is founded on the hypothesis that the human brain does not only passively observe the events or the environment in its surrounding. Rather, it builds its perceptions about experiences, scenarios, and problems. This idea positions learning as an active task that requires effort from learner. Knowledge has to be constructed and built upon, it cannot be downloaded or imparted. In this article we will explore what this theory means for classroom practice.

History of Generative Learning

The educational psychologist Merlin C. Wittrock proposed The theory of Generative Learning in 1974. Wittrock indicated that new knowledge must be incorporated into the already existing mental schema. This schema may include learner cognitions, pre-existing knowledge, and personal experience. According to Wittrock, through the process of 'generation,' learners create connections between stimuli and the knowledge they already have in their memory.

Therefore, people must create a relationship between the new concept demonstrated to them and what they already know for learning. Joining the dots spontaneously is the main aspect of generative learning theory.

model of generative learning theory
Model of generative learning theory

Stages of Generative Learning

The SOI model proposed by Logan Fiorella and Richard Mayer suggests that people generate learning from new information in three stages. This generative model is a great starting point for schools that are using our block building strategy. Allowing children to develop concrete mental models using our block building structures provides teachers with the student schema's inside picture. This approach has helped learners tackle an abstract concept such as the correct use of an adverb. In one of our recent studies, an English teacher used the blocks to teach the key grammatical concepts in English. In the initial study phase, learners were more engaged and willing to take risks in the classroom. The future studies that we have planned will be looking at how children develop deeper conceptual knowledge across different subjects. The generative model three stages are as follows:

  1. At first, people focus on selecting particular information from what they have heard, seen or read.
  2. Secondly, they organise the details in their active memory. This may include transforming it into a new kind or structuring the details so that it helps them solve a problem or answer a question.
  3. Thirdly they incorporate the new information into the pre-existing schema that enables this prior knowledge to instruct their thoughts about this new knowledge and assure that the new knowledge can incorporate into their pre-existing knowledge or modify their prior knowledge so that the new knowledge can be adapted.

Using the SOI model with the blocks



The Four Main Concepts of Generative Learning Theory

The Generative Learning Theory is comprising of four main concepts that instructional developers can integrate into their lessons. They can even use any one of such concepts, according to the requirement of the students and the learning resources involved.

  • Recall takes place when the learners access information that already exists in their long-term memory. The primary objective is to encourage students to cultivate a concept founded upon information and details they already know. An example of recalling strategies might be having a person review information or repeating it until the concept is fully understood.
  • Integration takes place when the learners add new details into the knowledge they already possess. The main objective is to modify information to make it more accessible and easy to remember. An example of this learning activity can be establishing analogies to define a concept or asking a student to paraphrase the text.
  • Organization takes place when learners connect their pre-existing knowledge with new concepts effectively that helps the learners remember. An example of organization strategies may include generating lists and grading individual items or evaluating the main parts of a concept.
  • Elaboration occurs when the learners are asked to connect new concepts with the knowledge they’ve already acquired in creative ways. An example of elaboration strategies is imagining how the new knowledge matches pre-existing knowledge or daily work.

Activities for Generative Learning

Mayer and Fiorella used the SOI model to study various activities that students can do in class. They identified eight activities that may have strong generative ability. These include:

  • Summarizing: Learning through the summarization method requires students to pick the main ideas, organizing these ideas into a logical pattern, and incorporating new knowledge with pre-existing knowledge.
  • Mapping: This strategy includes a variety of techniques, such as graphic organizers, knowledge maps and concept maps. It is a generative strategy because the students pick important words that indicate the main ideas, organize these ideas by establishing links between them, and incorporate new knowledge with pre-existing knowledge by specifying the overall pattern of the map.
  • Drawing: Students provide a pictorial representation of the text while using drawing as a learning strategy. Drawing is a generative process because it involves selecting related ideas from the text, organizing the concepts in pictorial form, and making use of pre-existing knowledge to demonstrate the meaning of the ideas in the drawing.
  • Imagining: Students build mental impressions of the topic to be learned while using imagining as a learning strategy. Just like drawing, imagining is also a generative strategy.
  • Self-testing: Students choose the most relevant information during self-testing or retrieval-based learning, followed by organizing and incorporating knowledge by making connections between new and old information.
  • Self-explaining: In the self-explaining technique, the students explain the details of the lesson to themselves. Self-explaining is a generative strategy because students determine the most relevant knowledge, explain the details in their own words, organize the knowledge by making inferences, and incorporate information with pre-existing knowledge during the explanations.
  • Teaching: The main purpose of teaching is to help others in learning. Teaching is somewhat close to self-explaining, but it sets itself apart depending upon the recipient of the teachings.
  • Enacting: When learners enact, they perform gestures or manipulate things relevant to the knowledge to be learned. It is also a generative learning technique because students choose the actions to perform, organize the details through the actions, and incorporate new knowledge with pre-existing knowledge during the process.

Summary of generative learning activities
Summary of generative learning activities

These activities are frequently used by educators in the classroom but with different goals in mind. For instance, self-testing is normally used as a revision aid after the learning and summarizing is commonly used for creating notes that can be used again in the future. However, Fiorella and Mayer’s work suggests that these activities can be used in particular ways to generate learning through the SOI model.

Teachers can use mind-maps in the class and ask students to turn information provided to them into a spider diagram. Then the students would use their notes for completing the further task at another date. The mind map itself wouldn't do much in terms of generating learning and would eventually look something like this.

using graphic organisers as a generative learning tool
using graphic organisers as a generative learning tool



For turning the mind map into generative, it must be ensured that the students must create the SOI model. First, they must have a definite goal in mind, then they have to be more selective for what they pick from the initial knowledge. Next, they must categorize the details to organize it. Finally, they must demonstrate how their pre-existing knowledge about the topic relates to the details presented on the map.


Generative learning is an active process

David Kolb's Learning Cycle

 In 1984, David Kolb presented a model to explain the process of learning from experience. According to this model, people go through four stages while learning from experience:


Kolbs Learning Cycle
Kolbs Learning Cycle



David Kolb suggests that for effective learning, the learner needs to progress through the cycle. Also, the learner can embark on the cycle at any one of the four stages of the cycle with logical progression.

David Kolb suggested that while learning from experience, people must pass through four stages. They can start from the theory of why something could work, and then they can propose a plan for using it in any specific context. Also, they can get the experience of doing it in reality before revealing whether it performed according to the expectation or they had to make any adjustments.


Creating generative learning tasks

If you are interested in embracing the generative learning theory in your school, we would suggest engaging your staff in a series of professional development sessions. The generative learning strategies are probably being used in your school already; shifting educators mindsets to the theory is another matter. We must remember that these evidence-informed activities help direct, meaningful learning. The generative learning theory helps us think about the learning experience in a new way. The learning material becomes something that has to be interpreted by the student and built upon. The mental modelling activities that our students are engaged with using the block building strategy really embrace the idea of learning as building. That is to say; the mental models have to be constructed carefully by the students. Knowledge activation happens as students integrate what they already know with the 'to be learnt material'. This approach to active recall enables pupils to direct their attention to conceptual declarative knowledge.


The generative model puts student understanding at the centre of the theory. The mental modelling strategy that we have been researching and developing makes the learning process visible for everyone. In one of our initial study phases with Bedfordshire University, teachers reported how they could see the individual differences of their students more acutely using the blocks. The difference in the builds represented how the students were tackling the key concepts they were encountering in the curriculum. Students were generating understanding differently. This became especially apparent when students tackled complex materials.


The universal thinking framework also has the generative theory at its core. The key message when using this new taxonomy is that declarative concepts have to be built. Knowledge has to be constructed meaningfully using cognitive actions. Key concepts don't just arrive in the students head; combining the block building strategy with the framework enables classrooms to bring a sense of architecture to the learning process.



  • Caviglioli, O. (2018). Understanding How We Learn: A Visual Guide. Routledge.
  • Fiorella, L., & Mayer, R. E. (2015). Learning as a generative activity. Cambridge University Press.
  • Fiorella, L., & Mayer, R. E. (2016). Eight ways to promote generative learning. Educational Psychology Review, 28(4), 717-741.
  • Kolb, D. A. (1984). Experience as the source of learning and development. Upper Sadle River: Prentice Hall.