In the mid-1960’s, Rothkopf (1965, 1966), investigating the effects of questions placed into text passages, coined the term mathemagenic, meaning “to give birth to learning.” His intention was to highlight the fact that it is something that learners do in processing (thinking about) learning material that causes learning and long-term retention of the learning material.
When learners are faced with learning materials, their attention to that learning material deteriorates with time. However, as Rothkopf (1982) illustrated, when the learning material is interspersed with questions on the material (even without answers), learners can maintain their attention at a relatively high level for long periods of time. The interspersed questions prompt learners to process the material in a manner that is more likely to give birth to learning.
Although the term mathemagenic was hot in the late 1960’s and 1970’s, it gradually faded from use as researchers lost interest in the study of adjunct questions and as critics complained that the word was too abstract and had little meaning beyond the operations of the research paradigm.
Despite having fallen into disfavor, the term—and the research it generated—have proven invaluable. The adjunct-question research showed us that test-like events are useful in helping learners to bolster memory for the information targeted by the question and to stay attentive to the most important aspects of the learning material. The concept of mathemagenic behavior is very much a central component in the way we think about learning. Who could doubt today that it’s the manner in which learners process the learning material that makes all of the difference in learning.
Rothkopf, E. Z. (1965). Some theoretical and experimental approaches to problems in written instruction. In J. D. Krumboltz (Ed.). Learning and the education process (pp. 193-221). Chicago: Rand McNally.
Rothkopf, E. Z. (1966). Learning from written instructive materials: An exploration of the control of inspection behavior by test-like events. American Educational Research Journal, 3, 241-249.
Rothkopf, E. Z. (1982). Adjunct aids and the control of mathemagenic activities during purposeful reading. In W. Otto & S. White (Eds.) Reading expository material. New York: Academic Press.
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