Older workers learn better when material is practical and relevant
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Older workers learn better when material is practical and relevant

Can’t teach an old dog new tricks? Not so, according to results from two studies on learning among older adults.

But, the studies concluded, older people learn differently from young adults, and it probably has to do with how their brains process new information.

It seems that the older brain is more ruthless (or more efficient, if you prefer) about how it stores new information. It tends to keep information that has practical applications and discard the rest.

News you can use
In one study, researchers tested the ability of younger and older people to remember pricing information.

One set of prices was basically the market price; the other set consisted of vastly inflated prices.

The older group remembered pricing information better when it was close to the real prices. With the overpriced items, they had trouble recalling the actual numbers. What they remembered was simply that the items were “overpriced.”

One way to interpret this response: In older people, the brain categorized the information in terms of practical relevance. Overpriced items were simply
remembered as “too expensive; I’d never pay that.” Reasonably priced items got more attention: “I might buy this, so I need to know the price.”

Reasons to remember
In another study, researchers compared people aged 55-59 and 60-64 against a cohort of undergrad/grad students.

The good news: They found that overall, the older age groups did just as well as the younger group in delayed testing (in this case, two-day intervals).

The researchers concluded that older people were more likely to remember material that was relevant. For example, they said, older subjects learn better when they study topics, such as the human heart, that are likely be related to their own health.

Younger learners, by contrast, seem to be more likely to learn for learning’s sake. They’re better at remembering new information that isn’t directly applicable to their world.

Retention among older learners also improved when they were tested on the material and received grades. The researchers concluded that grading and feedback created reasons to remember. The information became relevant because the older learners wanted to do well on the test.

What you can do
Here are two takeaways from the studies. Both are good ideas for training anyone, but especially important when working with older learners:

1. Show the relevance. Explicitly connect the material to their world. Don’t count on learners to make the connection; spell it out for them.

2. Use social engagement and competition. “Reasons to remember” might include: wanting to score well, getting positive feedback, and recognition from peers.

Cites: Meyer, A. N. D., & Logan, J. M. (2013). Taking the testing effect beyond the college freshman: Benefits for lifelong learning. Psychology and Aging, Feb. 25. doi: 10.1037/a0030890.

Castel, Alan D. (2006). Memory for grocery prices in younger and older adults: The role of schematic support. Psychology and Aging, Vol. 20, No. 4, 718-721.

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