Research School Network: Generative Learning and Reflective Teachers In this blog Durrington Research School ELE Mark Enser explores Fiorella and Mayer’s generative learning.

Generative Learning and Reflective Teachers

In this blog Durrington Research School ELE Mark Enser explores Fiorella and Mayer’s generative learning.

by Durrington Research School
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During the summer, my wife and I were asked to write a book on Logan Fiorella and Richard Mayer’s Generative Learning as part of Tom Sherrington’s Walkthrough series of books that he had started with Rosenshine’s Principles of Instruction… in Action. I had come across their paper on Eight Ways to Promote Generative Learning a couple of years ago and had found the ideas interesting and the SOI model that sits at their heart very useful.

The SOI model comes from Richard Mayer’s work into how people generate learning from new information and it suggests that people go through three stages.

Firstly they need to direct their attention to select specific information from what they have read, seen or heard. Secondly, they organise this information in their working memory. This might involve turning it into a new form or structuring the information in such a way that it helps them answer a question or solve a problem. Thirdly they integrate the new information into their existing schema in order to allow this prior knowledge to inform their thoughts about this new information but also to ensure that the new information can assimilate into their prior knowledge or change their prior knowledge so that the new information can be accommodated (here we see the alignment of the SOI model with classic schema theory).

In Oliver Caviglioli’s illustration used in our book, the SOI model looks like this

Enser gen 1

Fiorella and Mayer used the SOI model to review different activities that students might be asked to do in class and identified 8 that their literature review seemed to suggest had a strong generative capacity. These are: summarising, drawing, mapping, imagining, self-testing, self-explanation, teaching and enacting.

These activities are ones that are commonly used by teachers in the classroom to a greater or lesser degree but they are used with different purposes in mind. For example, summarising may be used to simply create notes that can be used again in the future or self-testing might be used as a revision aid after the learning is thought to have happened. What Fiorella and Mayer’s work suggests is that these activities can be used in specific ways to generate learning, using the SOI model.

As an example, I have often used mind-maps in class and asked pupils to turn information presented to them in some form into a spider diagram. They would then use these notes to complete some sort of further task at a later date. The mind map itself would do little in terms of creating learning and would end up looking something like this.

Enser gen 2

In order to make the mind map generative we need to ensure that pupils go through the SOI model. First, they need to be more selective in terms of what they take from the initial information. There needs to be a more defined purpose. Then, they need to organise the information, to categorize it, rather than adding it at random around a keyword. Finally, they need to show how their prior knowledge about the topic fits to the information shown on the map and add it in. What they might end up with is something like this,

Enser gen 3

The same is true of all eight strategies discussed. They might all be commonly used, but that doesn’t mean they are used to generate learning. This made researching and writing the book an interesting experience. We were presenting something that might, at first glance, seem like something everyone was already doing but that we were suggesting should be done differently, with a different purpose in mind.

This presents the same kind of challenge that many teachers face in schools with their CPD. Often we are presented with something that seems obvious (break material up into guided steps, don’t overwhelm working memory, ensure pupils reflect on comments) but that may have important implications for how we need to adapt what we do in the class. This is because any input of new information to a teacher, be it generative learning, Rosenshine’s principles, or cognitive load theory, is only the first stage of a process that teachers then need to take control of.

David Kolb, writing about adult and vocational education in the 1980s, suggested that people need to go through four stages when learning from experience. They might begin with the theory of why something should work (“Do generative learning like this!”) but then need to take it and come up with a plan for how they are going to use it in their context. Then they can have the experience of actually doing it before reflecting on whether it worked as they hoped it would and returning to the theory to see if any adjustments need to be made. In schools, it might look something like this.

Enser gen 4

With generative learning, it is important that it doesn’t stay at the abstract conceptualization stage. It can’t be presented to teachers simply as something they need to do. There are too many different contexts in schools and the principles and activities would need approaching in different ways. You might find enacting a useful process with younger children who struggle with abstract ideas but they would be thrown by concept mapping. Summarising would work well for a text in English but might not work in science where information has already been condensed into a diagram or table.

One of the big mistakes we make when presenting ideas to teachers is a desire to sell things as shiny and new. One of the biggest mistakes we make as teachers is dismissing things out of hand because they are not shiny and new. Instead, we all need to accept that as professionals we are best placed to take a range of ideas into what may be useful in our classrooms and to discuss them in terms of our context, try them if they seem promising and to reflect on the impacts. 


Fiorella, L. and Mayer, R. E. (2015) Learning as a generative activity: eight learning strategies that promote understanding. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press.

Fiorella, L. and Mayer, R. E. (2016) Eight ways to promote generative learning’, Educational Psychology Review 28 (4) pp. 717 – 741.

Kolb, D. (1984) Experiential learning: experience as the source of learning and development. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall.

Mark Enser is head of geography and research lead at Heathfield Community College and an ELE with Durrington Research School. His latest book Generative Learning in Action is available now. He tweets @EnserMark

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