Contrary to previous understanding, a study found older brains get more benefit than younger brains from learning information the hard way, via trial-and-error learning. The study was led by scientists at Baycrest's world-renowned Rotman Research Institute in Toronto.
The finding will surprise professional educators and cognitive rehabilitation clinicians as it challenges a large body of published science which has shown that making mistakes while learning information hurts memory performance for older adults, and that passive "errorless" learning (where the correct answer is provided) is better suited to older brains.
"The scientific literature has traditionally embraced errorless learning for older adults," said Andree-Ann Cyr, a doctoral student in Psychology (University of Toronto) and the study's lead investigator.
"However, our study has shown that if older adults are learning material that is very conceptual, where they can make a meaningful relationship between their errors and the correct information that they are supposed to remember, in those cases the errors can actually be quite beneficial for the learning process," he stated.
In two separate studies, researchers compared the memory benefits of trial-and-error learning (TEL) with errorless learning (EL) in memory exercises with groups of healthy young and older adults.
In both studies, participants remembered the learning context of the target words better if they had been learned through trial-and-error, relative to the errorless condition.
This was especially true for the older adults whose performance benefited approximately 2.5 times more relative to their younger peers.
The findings from the Baycrest study may have important implications for how information is taught to older adults in the classroom, and for rehabilitation procedures aimed at delaying cognitive decline - procedures that rely on knowledge of how to train an aging brain, said Cyr.
The findings appeared online Aug. 24, 2011 in the journal Psychology and Aging, ahead of the print edition.