For older people, learning the hard way — making mistakes — seems to be the best route to preserving memory, according to new research.
In two separate studies, researchers compared the results of two types of memory exercises among groups of healthy young adults (20s) as well as older adults (average age of 70). The two tests included trial-and-error learning (TEL) and errorless learning (EL).
Participants were supposed to think of a specific word after being shown a “cue.” Those in the EL group were given the correct word. Those in the TEL group made two guesses before being given the correct word. Later, all subjects took a memory test that required them to remember the context in which the words were learned.
In both studies, volunteers remembered the learning context of the given words better when learned through trial and error. This was especially true for older adults. The older group’s performance benefited from trial and error about 2.5 times more compared to the younger group.
Researchers say these results came as a surprise, since a large body of published research has shown making mistakes while learning hinders memory and that passive, errorless learning is better for older adults.
“The scientific literature has traditionally embraced errorless learning for older adults. 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,” Andreé-Ann Cyr, the study’s lead investigator, was quoted as saying.
SOURCE: Psychology and Aging