Older adults learn non-verbal reasoning skills easier than children

You cannot teach old dog new tricks. It is a common saying, implying that our learning ability declines as we age. Scientists from UCL wanted to see whether it is true and performed some basic experiments. Their research revealed a surprising fact – older adolescents and adults are able to learn some thinking skills more effectively than younger people.

You can teach an old dog some new tricks  older adults are better at learning non-verbal reasoning skills. Image credit: alegri via, CC - BY

You can teach an old dog some new tricks – older adults are better at learning non-verbal reasoning skills. Image credit: alegri via, CC – BY

These skills include non-verbal reasoning, which for some reason were thought to be an innate, fixed ability. More than anything, this researched debunked the myth of tests that address non-verbal reasoning skills before going to school. Scientists saw that children, aged 11-13, improved their test scores from 60 % to 70 % in just three weeks of ten-minute online training sessions. Study involved 558 children, aged 11-18 and, 105 adults. Participants were tested for various skills and then took a 20 day online training course to improve that skill.

After the training participants were tested again to see if their skills improved. Then they had to complete a final test six month after, in order to see if these results are long-lasting. One of the most interesting tests, assessing the non-verbal reasoning skills, included a 3×3 grid of shapes with the final square left blank. These shapes had different colours, sizes, positions and so on. Participants had to look at the grid and choose the correct shape to complete the pattern. Scientists found that skills, which require some skills of mathematics, where easier to learn for older adults.

Interestingly, scientists made participants to take tests they were not training for also, in order to see if learned abilities transfer to other skills as well. However, no such transfer was observed in this study. It means that various apps that promise to improve cognitive ability, but use only one kind of tests, are not as effective as they promise to be. Dr Lisa Knoll, co-author of the study, said: “These findings highlight the relevance of this late developmental stage for education and challenge the assumption that earlier is always better for learning. We find that fundamental cognitive skills related to mathematics can be significantly trained in late adolescence”.

We know that we should never stop learning. However, now we also know that later in life some skills are easier to learn, which should encourage many people. As hard as it is to make oneself study, these efforts are well worth it.

Source: UCL