Aging Brains Learn Best by Trial and Error
Much to the surprise of many experts on aging, a recent scientific study in Canada found older adults learn concepts and skills much better by trial and error than by the more passive methods as previously thought. Most doctors and experts on aging have long believed that asking older people to "figure things out" would slow down or interfere with the actual learning process and memory. The previous approach was to provide the answer or solution and repeat it over and over again. The experts' concern was based on the theory that making mistakes would confuse the aging brain - and hence, interfere with learning new things. This study demonstrates the opposite - making mistakes allows the older adult to relate better to the concept or task. It is a more effective way for the aging brain to learn and remember.
In a study at the Rotman Research Institute in Toronto, two groups were studied - an older group with an average age of 70 and a group of younger adults in their 20's. Both groups were asked to perform tasks by both a trial and error method and a passive method in which they were given the answer to memorize. It was found that when the older group was able to make a connection between their errors and the correct solution, they remembered it more accurately than when they were given the correct answer to memorize without associating any experience to the answer. Experience is a more effective learning tool than repetition and memorization alone.
Not only did the older group learn the concepts more effectively by trial and error, but they learned them two and a half times more accurately than the 20+ year old group. The study's lead investigator suspects this is due to the older group's more intent focus on the assigned tasks.
After working as a physical therapist in a geriatric setting for three years, the result of this study comes as no surprise. In college my training taught me that therapy for older adults needed to be done more slowly, simply and with more repetition than with younger patients. It did not take long for reality to set in. This concept did not fit the people appearing for therapy in my rehab department. From hip fractures to stroke patients, many of these older adults met the challenges of recovery by attempting a variety of ways to perform a set task. Allowing them to make corrections to their mistakes, trial and error methods helped them succeed - dressing themselves with one hand, climbing stairs, walking with a brace. I invited them to be actively involved in problem solving. Success came after trial and error. Success came when they learned what worked for them.
It is a relief that science has now proven what senior citizens have known for a long time - we learn from our mistakes.
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