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Year : 2020  |  Volume : 6  |  Issue : 1  |  Page : 70-71

Generative Versus Retrieval-Based Learning Processes: Understanding the Enigma Behind Science of Learning for Better Teaching

Department of Anatomy, Jawaharlal Institute of Postgraduate Medical Education and Research, Puducherry, India

Date of Submission10-Jan-2020
Date of Decision02-Feb-2020
Date of Acceptance12-Feb-2020
Date of Web Publication30-Apr-2020

Correspondence Address:
Assistant Professor V Dinesh Kumar
Department of Anatomy, Jawaharlal Institute of Postgraduate Medical Education and Research, Puducherry-605006
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Source of Support: None, Conflict of Interest: None

DOI: 10.4103/mamcjms.mamcjms_1_20

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How to cite this article:
Kumar V D, Veeramani R. Generative Versus Retrieval-Based Learning Processes: Understanding the Enigma Behind Science of Learning for Better Teaching. MAMC J Med Sci 2020;6:70-1

How to cite this URL:
Kumar V D, Veeramani R. Generative Versus Retrieval-Based Learning Processes: Understanding the Enigma Behind Science of Learning for Better Teaching. MAMC J Med Sci [serial online] 2020 [cited 2023 Jun 4];6:70-1. Available from: https://www.mamcjms.in/text.asp?2020/6/1/70/283500


The learning activities executed in a classroom can broadly be classified into generative learning tasks and retrieval-based ones. Generative learning tasks enable the students to organize and elaborate the knowledge framework in the form of identifying the key concepts, relating them to the existing knowledge and establishing hierarchy within the learned content based on perceived importance.[1] For example, a student attending the lecture class on the topic of inguinal region anatomy tries to create a coherent mental representation is an example of organizational component of generative learning. Elaboration activities are those which help the learner to substantially enhance the learning outcomes both in terms of experiential learning and applying in different contexts.[2] To exemplify, when the same student dissects the inguinal region, he/she adds the three-dimensional orientation to the content organized already and when he/she sees the case of inguinal hernia during early clinical exposure ward rounds, the clinical dimension gets added. Education researchers in the past had excessively attributed Edgar Dale’s pyramid of learning and learning styles to the knowledge retention rates. However, the recent insight has debunked those and pronounced that they do not have significant impact in the process of generative learning.[3] Thus, an educator should be aware about the nature of learning activity and its effect on mental representation while planning the pedagogy.

The second type, the retrieval-based learning depends on the ability of the students to retrieve the knowledge framework from the stored mental representation gained via generative learning tasks. This learning typically happens at times of formative assessment, where students are expected to recall the content after a prescribed interval and thereby reinforce the knowledge gained. To add further, retrieval-based learning can be surface oriented whereby students are tested for mere recognition (e.g.: spotter based practical examination) or deep oriented where comprehension and application are tested (e.g.: discussion/viva sessions).[4] Retrieval based learning can be promoted by encouraging application of gained knowledge in different contexts and at varying intervals (i.e. spaced testing). Roediger and Karpicke[5] found that conducting tests during study time has improved delayed retrieval of knowledge and the time spent on retrieval could be positively correlated to the knowledge retention. In case of practical or skill-based learning, opportunities for retrieval can be provided through simulation laboratories.[6]

This could be further understood by the “new theory of disuse” postulated by Bjork and Bjork,[7] which states that knowledge framework or mental representations have both retrieval and storage strengths. Retrieval strength denotes the ease with which a student recalls the piece of knowledge at a given moment and storage strength refers to the period to which knowledge is existing in his/her accessible memory. Given the ultimate objective of medical education is long term of retention of learned knowledge and retrieving them at times of need, we need to focus on activities which boosts both strengths. In this regard, we could also envisage the shortcoming of summative assessment examinations which encourages the students to study focused areas in less time. Under these circumstances, a significant proportion of students tend to “cram” and cramming results in gain of immediate knowledge with less storage strength and higher retrieval strength.[8] From the above-mentioned conceptualisation, we can infer that poor development of mental representation coupled with cramming can thus be considered to have antagonistic effect in the expected germane process of learning and knowledge retention in long run.

To conclude, with the advent of competency based medical education, the role of a medical educator has metamorphosed to the next stage. In order to accomplish genuine educational environment, we need to find out which type of learning would be most effective and for enunciating this, we should prime the cognitive processes of students. An ideal pedagogy should be able to trigger both the above-mentioned type of learning activities at different stages of learning process. It should allow the learners to maintain adequate storage and retrieval strengths and the proportion of these should be titrated depending upon the complexity of the content and expertise level of students. We feel that knowing the scientific basis of learning and instruction might help the teachers to devise better teaching strategies and improvise the learning outcomes.

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Conflicts of interest

There are no conflicts of interest.

  References Top

Glogger I, Schwonke R, Holzäpfel L, Nückles M, Renkl A. Learning strategies assessed by journal writing: Prediction of learning outcomes by quantity, quality, and combinations of learning strategies. J Educ Psychol 2012;104:452-68.  Back to cited text no. 1
Rawson KA, Dunlosky J. How effective is example generation for learning declarative concepts? Educ Psychol Rev 2016;28:649-72.  Back to cited text no. 2
Masters K. Edgar Dale’s Pyramid of Learning in medical education: Further expansion of the myth. Med Educ 2020;54:22-32  Back to cited text no. 3
Butler AC. Repeated testing produces superior transfer of learning relative to repeated studying. J Exp Psychol: Learning, Memory, and Cognition 2010;36:1118-33.  Back to cited text no. 4
Roediger HL, Karpicke JD. Test-enhanced learning: taking memory tests improves long-term retention. Psychol Sci 2006;17:249-55  Back to cited text no. 5
Fraser K, Wright B, Girard L, Tworek J, Paget M, Welikovich L, McLaughlin K. 2011. Simulation training improves diagnostic performance on a real patient with similar clinical findings. Chest 2011;139:376-81.  Back to cited text no. 6
Bjork RA, Bjork EL. A new theory of disuse and an old theory of stimulus fluctuation. From learning processes to cognitive processes: Essays in honour of William K. Estes 1992;2:35-67.  Back to cited text no. 7
Bjork EL, Bjork RA. Making things hard on yourself, but in a good way: Creating desirable difficulties to enhance learning. Psychology and the real world: Essays illustrating fundamental contributions to society, 2011;56-64  Back to cited text no. 8


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