Learning the hard way may be the best boot camp for the brain

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It turns out that learning things the hard way – via trial-and-error – benefits older brains more than younger ones.

The findings of a recent study, led by Baycrest scientists, have surprised professional educators and clinicians. Traditionally, the literature has promoted the idea that older adults should avoid making errors when learning new information. For younger adults “learning from your mistakes” has always been considered an important way to learn.

“In our study, we found the opposite was true for older adults,” says Andree-Ann Cyr, Baycrest researcher and the study’s lead investigator. “We found that learning information the hard way, by making errors, can actually be a good way for older adults to learn.”

The study showed that if older adults are learning conceptual material, where they make a meaningful relationship between their errors and the correct information, the errors can benefit the learning process.

The first group of study participants was asked to guess an article of clothing. If they guessed the wrong answer (pants), they were told the correct answer (skirt). The second group was given the correct word (skirt) and asked to remember it as an article of clothing.

“We later compared the memories of those in the learning situation where they made the errors, relative to those who were given the correct answers. We found that those who made the errors were much better at recalling information about the studied words. They were able to use those errors to benefit their memory,” explains Dr. Cyr.

This is encouraging news for older adults who are taking on new activites that involve learning and memorizing – for example, going back to school, or learning to use a new tool such as a computer or a new hobby such as dance or a card game.

Active versus passive learning

“It’s the idea of active versus passive learning,” notes Cyr. “When you’re making errors, you’re being very active and engaged in the learning process. This really helps create extra association so that later when you need to remember the information, you have had a richer encoding experience which makes it easier to retrieve it. When you’ve had a passive, errorless form of learning, you’re not going to have that same benefit.”

For older adults, the prescription is to try to make associations. It’s okay to get it wrong. This process makes the brain work harder. It can be compared to a boot camp for the brain. When you’re working out physically, stressing your muscles a little will help you be stronger. In the same way, making mistakes can be a treadmill for your brain.

Older adults benefit more than younger adults

The older group showed a greater benefit from the trial-and-error learning than did the younger group. This could be because the younger group had a memory advantage at the start of the study.

Younger people are better at passive learning, so the difference in the memory results between the two types of learning (passive versus active) was not as great.

Using the muscle analogy, if you have a muscle that you don’t use and you start training it, you’re going to see a bigger boost in your strength than someone who already has a strong muscle to begin with.

Tips for learning by trial-and-error:

  • When learning new information, try to retrieve information rather than just study it.
  • When you’re studying, cover up the answers and try to remember the correct information. Even if you make mistakes, it’s better than simply reading the correct information from the book.
  • When engaging in a new hobby, participate in the activity rather than simply watching others do it.

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