Aging & Longevity
Even Seniors Improve Memory by Making Mistakes While
Learning, If Guesses Close
Researcher earlier found making mistakes -as opposed
to being told the answer - is best boot camp for older brains
27, 2014 Making mistakes while learning can benefit memory and lead to
the correct answer, even for senior citizens, but only if the guesses
are close-but-no-cigar, according to new research findings from Baycrest
"Making random guesses does not appear to benefit
later memory for the right answer, but near-miss guesses act as stepping
stones for retrieval of the correct information and this benefit is
seen in younger and older adults," says lead investigator Andrιe-Ann
Cyr, a graduate student with Baycrest's Rotman Research Institute and
the Department of Psychology at the University of Toronto.
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Cyr's paper is posted online today in the
Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition
(ahead of print publication). The study expands upon a previous paper
she published in Psychology and Aging in 2012 that found that
learning information the hard way by making mistakes (as opposed to just
being told the correct answer) may be the best boot camp for older
That paper raised eyebrows since the scientific
literature has traditionally recommended that older adults avoid making
mistakes unlike their younger peers who actually benefit from them.
But recent evidence from Cyr and other researchers is challenging this
perspective and prompting professional educators and cognitive
rehabilitation clinicians to take note.
Cyr's latest research provides evidence that
trial-and-error learning can benefit memory in both young and old when
errors are meaningfully related to the right answer, and can actually
harm memory when they are not.
In their latest study, 65 healthy younger adults
(average age 22) and 64 healthy older adults (average age 72) learned
target words (e.g., rose) based either on the semantic category it
belongs to (e.g., a flower) or its word stem (e.g., a word that begins
with the letters 'ro'). For half of the words, participants were given
the answer right away (e.g., "the answer is rose") and for the other
half, they were asked to guess at it before seeing the answer (e.g., a
flower: "Is it tulip?" or ro___ : "is it rope?").
On a later memory test, participants were shown the
categories or word stems and had to come up with the right answer. The
researchers wanted to know if participants would be better at
remembering rose if they had made wrong guesses prior to studying it
rather than seeing it right away.
They found that this was only true if participants
learned based on the categories (e.g., a flower). Guessing actually made
memory worse when words were learned based on word stems (e.g., ro___).
This was the case for both younger and older adults.
Cyr and her colleagues suggest this is because our
memory organizes information based on how it is conceptually rather than
lexically related to other information. For example, when you think of
the word pear, your mind is more likely to jump to another fruit, such
as apple, than to a word that looks similar, such as peer. Wrong guesses
only add value when they have something meaningful in common with right
answers. The guess tulip may be wrong, but it is still conceptually
close to the right answer rose (both are flowers).
By guessing first as opposed to just reading the
answer, one is thinking harder about the information and making useful
connections that can help memory. Indeed, younger and older participants
were more likely to remember the answer if they also remembered their
wrong guesses, suggesting that these acted as stepping stones.
By contrast, when guesses only have letters in
common with answers, they clutter memory because one cannot link them
meaningfully. The word rope is nowhere close to rose in our memory. In
these situations, where your guesses are likely to be out in left field,
it is best to bypass mistakes altogether.
"The fact that this pattern was found for older
adults as well shows that aging does not influence how we learn from
mistakes," says Cyr.
"These results have profound clinical and practical
implications. They turn traditional views of best practices in memory
rehabilitation for healthy seniors on their head by demonstrating that
making the right kind of errors can be beneficial. They also provide
great hope for lifelong learning and guidance for how seniors should
study," says Dr. Nicole Anderson, senior scientist with Baycrest's
Rotman Research Institute and senior author on the study.
The study was funded by the Canadian Institutes of
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