The benefit of generating errors during learning

J Exp Psychol Gen. 2014 Apr;143(2):644-67. doi: 10.1037/a0033194. Epub 2013 Jul 1.


Testing has been found to be a powerful learning tool, but educators might be reluctant to make full use of its benefits for fear that any errors made would be harmful to learning. We asked whether testing could be beneficial to memory even during novel learning, when nearly all responses were errors, and where errors were unlikely to be related to either cues or targets. In 4 experiments, participants learned definitions for unfamiliar English words, or translations for foreign vocabulary, by generating a response and being given corrective feedback, by reading the word and its definition or translation, or by selecting from a choice of definitions or translations followed by feedback. In a final test of all words, generating errors followed by feedback led to significantly better memory for the correct definition or translation than either reading or making incorrect choices, suggesting that the benefits of generation are not restricted to correctly generated items. Even when information to be learned is novel, errorful generation may play a powerful role in potentiating encoding of corrective feedback. Experiments 2A, 2B, and 3 revealed, via metacognitive judgments of learning, that participants are strikingly unaware of this benefit, judging errorful generation to be a less effective encoding method than reading or incorrect choosing, when in fact it was better. Predictions reflected participants' subjective experience during learning. If subjective difficulty leads to more effort at encoding, this could at least partly explain the errorful generation advantage.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Cues
  • Educational Measurement
  • Feedback
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Learning*
  • Male
  • Memory
  • Mental Recall
  • Young Adult