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Older people may learn better through trial and error

August 24, 2011|By Jeannine Stein, Los Angeles Times / For the Booster Shots blog
  • Older people may get more out of trial-and-error-learning than through errorless learning, a study finds.
Older people may get more out of trial-and-error-learning than through… (Los Angeles Times )

If at first you don't succeed, try again -- and you may get a brain boost.

A study released today in the journal Psychology and Aging found that older people benefited from trial-and-error learning. The research paper encompassed two small studies in which older and younger adults were given a series of memory tests using trial-and-error learning or errorless learning.

In the trial-and-error test, cues for a specific word were given, and then participants were allowed to guess the word twice before seeing the correct answer. This is considered more taxing, since the brain has to make connections to get to the information. In the errorless test, after a cue was given, the correct word was revealed. This is considered a more passive way to learn. The test subjects were also given a memory test that asked them to recall the context in which they learned the word -- for example, if they learned it via trial-and-error.

In both studies, all participants demonstrated more benefits from trial-and-error learning than they did from errorless learning. Older adults (average age 70)  benefited more than their younger counterparts, who were in their 20s.

"The scientific literature has traditionally embraced errorless learning for older adults," said lead author Andree-Ann Cyr in a news release. "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."

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