Ottawa: Canadian researchers have found the first evidence that older brains remember information better if it is learned through trial and error, rather than passively taking it in, a study said on Wednesday.

"Learning the hard way proved to be the best way," lead study investigator Andree-Ann Cyr said
The finding was published in the Psychology and Aging journal online, ahead of the print edition.

Educators and cognitive rehabilitation clinicians were surprised at the findings, which challenge a large body of published science that has shown that making mistakes while learning information hurts memory performance for older adults, and that passive learning is better suited to older brains.

"The scientific literature has traditionally embraced errorless learning for older adults," said Cyr.
"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."

In two separate trials, scientists at Baycrest's Rotman Research Institute in Toronto compared the results of memory exercises performed by 45 adults in their 20s with those of 45 older adults with an average age of 70 years.

Two learning methods were applied. The first involved passive learning in which participants were asked to remember a category such as "flower" and a related word such as "rose."
Another method was learning with errors, where the category is provided but the participant has to guess the related word before it is eventually provided to them.

The difference in the two methods is akin to reading a book versus passively watching a movie. "It requires more cognitive effort when you have to come up with the answers yourself," Cyr said.

The brain makes richer associations and linkages when encoding the information if it has to dig for the answers, whereas passive or errorless learning is less taxing on the brain, because the correct answer is simply provided.

In both trials, participants remembered the context of target words better if they had been learned through trial and error. But this was especially true for older adults.

"Older adults are typically experiencing age-related declines in memory, so they get a bigger boost from setting up learning to create richer memories than younger adults who are not experiencing any memory impairments," Cyr explained.

"Young people also have a leg up because they're pretty good at spontaneously creating memory associations and making their memories richer."

The findings may have important implications for how information is taught to older adults in the classroom, and for rehabilitation procedures aimed at delaying cognitive decline -- procedures that rely on knowledge of how to train an aging brain, according to Cyr.