Trial-and-error may help older adults to learn better, a Canadian study suggests.

The experiments compared results on memory tests after trial-and-error learning and passive learning, which involves no chance for errors.

The goal of the research was to test if learning from one's mistakes applies only to the young. 

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The memory findings may have implications for how information is taught to older adults in the classroom, and for rehabilitation procedures aimed at delaying cognitive decline. (iStock)

Andrée-Ann Cyr led the study as a doctoral student in psychology at the University of Toronto.

Cyr and her co-author Nicole Anderson of the Baycrest Centre for Geriatric Care's Kunin-Lunenfeld Applied Research Institute designed two experiments to compare memory in young adults in their 20s and older adults with an average age of 70.

Traditionally, scientists consider errorless learning to be better for older adults.

But the new findings suggest 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, then the errors can be helpful, Cyr said.

"This is encouraging because with our aging population, we're seeing more and more older adults seeking re-education, training opportunities and those kinds of things," Cyr said.

"Essentially it's showing that the older brain can deal with errors …in a similar fashion that younger adults do. And what's more, that they can actually benefit more than their younger peers."

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The older, healthy brain benefits more from trial-and-error learning than younger brains, says Andree-Ann Cyr. (Kelly Connelly/Baycrest)

In the experiments, the 48 young adults and 46 older adults  were asked to remember a word, such as "molar." In the errorless cases, they were just shown the correct word.

In the trial-and-error version, subjects were given a cue (such as type of tooth) and then they made two guesses, such as canine, incisor, before the correct answer, molar, was shown.

For trial-and-error, the "correct" answer was quickly changed if someone guessed it to ensure mistakes were made.

After a while, the participants did a memory test that required them to remember if they learned the word as "fill in the blank" or errorless or "guess" for trial-and-error.

Overall, the older adults experienced a greater boost in their performance by 2.5 times more relative to their young peers using trial-and-error, the researchers found.

All the volunteers were healthy and had to pass a basic test of cognition to participate. The level of education was similar between the two groups.

The study will appear in an upcoming issue of the journal Psychology and Aging.

The study was funded by a doctoral award and research grant from the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council.

With files from CBC's Amina Zafar