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Generative learning, retrieval practice, #edtech and the importance of #sequencing

By June 10, 2022No Comments
Blog post featured image in purple with white writing. The title is "Generative learning, retrieval practice, edtech and the importance of sequencing" with the last section "and the importance of sequencing" in yellow

In a recently made available study on sequencing, Roelle, Froese, Krebs, Obergassel and Waldeyer shared some interesting highlights in their paper “Sequence matters! Retrieval practice before generative learning is more effective than the reverse order”. 

The paper certainly reinforces previous findings related to spaced practice and retrieval practice

It should be fair to say at this point that as the abstract shared, they performed their study with N = 158 university students, who we all know, will (or at least are more likely to) be far more invested in their learning than many of our primary and secondary, students, but I do think that the findings bear merit. 

The highlights of the study share:

  • Retrieval practice before generative learning is more effective than vice versa.
  • Engaging in retrieval practice first fosters retention.
  • Engaging in retrieval practice first reduces subjective cognitive load.
  • The retrieval-first effect on extraneous load mediates the effect on retention.

If you’re sitting there thinking, well ok – but how can technology help with this, I’m writing this post to try and provide some inspiration for thinking differently about when you might decide to give learners tasks to complete whilst using technology to demonstrate their learning. 

Generative learning attempts to help improve students’ learning by prompting them to actively try to make sense of the material being learned. Common examples of activities such as this are often things that teachers ask students to use technology to complete such as:

  • Creating a timeline
  • Creating a video to explain a subject
  • Creative a presentation to demonstrate understanding

The thing is, as this study extols, we are probably doing our learners a disservice if we don’t sequence the activity in the right order. Certainly, it would most likely make the task more difficult for learners and additionally, wouldn’t help the retention we’re trying to facilitate as much as it otherwise would if we didn’t do things in the right order, hence, sequencing is super important. 

So… how can we do that, in what order and what tools can help?

Well, let’s say we want to teach about aerobic and anaerobic respiration in Science. You teach the key information, things such as that it is not the same as breathing (ventilation), it takes place in all plant and animal cells, aerobic respiration requires oxygen, carbon dioxide is produced as a by-product, it produces energy. In anaerobic respiration, oxygen isn’t needed and lactic acid is produced as a by-product, etc. You might ask learners to run around a bit to get them out of breath and explain the difference between how they feel before and after the exercise to talk about why you breathe more heavily after exercise, as you’re trying to replenish oxygen in your body and that it’s called EPOC (excess post-exercise oxygen consumption). You might demonstrate this and show mitochondria, you might create a diagram which shows the energy transfer, or the relevant equations such as glucose + oxygen > carbon dioxide + water. Clearly, as a Science teacher, you’d go into more detail than I have above, but hopefully, it highlights the point about a teaching activity. 

Now, after this has been taught and shared with your students, you might consider a consolidation activity such as those mentioned above. Students, go create a presentation in PowerPoint or Google Slides or Keynote or ask them to jump into iMovie and create a short video with a voice-over that explains what you have just learned. Another tool that would be perfect for this would be the video element within Adobe CC Express

So what’s wrong with that?

Sure, that might be helpful, but… as this study shares, not giving students that opportunity to forget some of this information by spacing out the practice from one session to the next, might mean you’re missing a trick to help with retention. 

Now that might seem counterintuitive – surely asking students to create something just after they’ve learned about it would be better to help reinforce that learning? Well, no. We know this works from Ebbinghaus’ forgetting curve. 

Additionally, addressing the misconceptions highlighted following a retrieval activity with your learners is more likely to have those misconceptions (now fixed) more freshly in their minds which should (for my thinking) help learners to consolidate learners mental representations in their memory.

What to do?

I would therefore recommend starting the subsequent lesson where you’ll be asking them to undertake generative learning tasks with a retrieval activity, probably using a tool such as Quizizz or Quizlet. Then spend some time unpicking misconceptions, and having conversations around that with your learners in class, before finally asking your learners to undertake that activity. 

Now there isn’t much about this post which is particularly groundbreaking, and certainly, if you’re looking to learn more about the theories I’ve shared in this post, where possible I’ve linked them up for your further reading. If you are however looking for a good touch point around generative learning then I can thoroughly recommend having a look at Zoe Enser’s ‘Generative Learning in Action’ book. 

As we all know, technology and its use in the classroom is too expensive and important to leave to chance to I hope this resonates and helps you with your practice.

I also thought, given the paper highlighted at the start was shared recently and, me being me; loving my edtech and making the thinking around its use as helpful and impactful as possible, I couldn’t help but share this post. I hope you find it useful. 


Have a great weekend! 



If you like my approaches to teaching and learning with technology and think I might be able to help you and your school, get in touch! I offer consultancy, training and digital strategy services to education and I have a strong track record of success with the schools that I work with.

Mark Anderson

Mark Anderson, @ICTEvangelist. Click here to learn more.

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