Generation Effect

My first ever hackathon project was a utility to help students remember bodies of text by taking advantage of the “Generation Effect”.

Generation Effect


UC Berkeley Hackjam 2014 project that take advantage of a cognitive phenomonenom called the “Generation Effect,” which is a mental ‘trick’ that helps increase memory retention.


It was the Spring of 2014 I attended my first hackathon. Four years later and I have a lot to reflect on! This was my first real collaborative experience. It was my first exposure to git/github as well as the first Flask app I worked on.

This hackathon was designed specifically for ‘first-timers.’ And the hackers@berkeley group that hosted this event in Soda Hall were very friendly and had everything set up for an enjoyable experience for a 12-hour hackathon (pizza delivered, comfortable chairs, good internet, and lots of outlets.)

My partners were Nick Rose, Alejandro Castillejo, and Zack Fischmann. We decided early on to try to build an app that took advantage of this psychological trick for helping with memory encoding and retention. The “Generation Effect” was something I had recently learned about in one of my cognitive science class lectures, and I thought it would be easy to build a simple app that could be used for experimenting with this phenomenon.

Generation Effect, What is it?

A good explanation can be summarized in the first paragraph of this paper from the paper Processing strategies and the generation effect: Implications for making a better reader (DEWINSTANLEY & BJORK, 2004):

The generation effect, which refers to the finding that we typically remember information better when we have taken an active part in producing it, rather than having it provided to us by an external source—as would be the case, for example, if we had to generate the word kitten from a word fragment (e.g., “k–tt–n”) versus being given the intact printed word to read—has been recognized in memory research for over 20 years (Jacoby, 1978; Slamecka & Graf, 1978). Moreover, since that time, the generation effect has proven to be quite robust and general, extending, for example, to mathematical problems Lawson & Chinnappan, 1994; McNamara & Healy, 1995a, 1995b, 2000), answers to trivia questions (deWinstanley, 1995; Pesta, Sanders, & Murphy, 1999; Peynircioˇglu & Mungan, 1993), and reading comprehension (Wittrock, 1990)

Basically, if your mind has to ‘fill in the blanks’ for some of the words (or in a more general sense any information input) it has to receive and process, then the energy it spends associating from the current context with previously known states helps when recalling that information. It is important to note that this seems a lot more useful for studying something already learned/known as opposed to new material.

Hackathon Projects and Projects in General

This hackathon was absolutey brilliant! I was hooked on hackathons :)

What I learned in these 12 hours has had a lasting effect on me. Designing an app that take advantage of cogntive behavior all in a single day. That was something new for me. I was used to doing homework assignments in computer science, and basic projects. They were tough projects, but the end results was kind of bland and tastless. This hackathon project was real! It was applying the all the things: the lessons and tools learned in the initial computer science course at Berkeley (CS61a), the interesting cognitive psychology experiments taught to Cognitive Science students, and google! Oh, how important Google was for getting this projects up and running. Not only was google important just for learning the basic git operations, but also for helping walk us through all of the python, flask, and other errors we encountered (and also for hosting the app, in the end…)

I learned that a hackathon was really about getting that first Proof-of-Concept out there. Once you had your PoC, once you were fromk zero to one, you could iterate and accelerate! This project was never accelerated. I don’t even think it was really iterated upon either. It could be though! And that’s the beauty of it. There’s a lot of mistakes we made, which is common for n00bs. And that’s another nice thing about good hackathons. They make you feel safe to make mistakes and ask stupid questions. They make it safe to learn and to explore areas that might seem inaccessible at first. No one on our team knew everything. In fact, I think everyone in our group was chalking off one type of ‘first time’ experience in one area or another of this project.

So yeah, hackathons are awesome, and I highly recommend looking for a local hackathon!!!