Topping conventional thinking, a new study found that making mistakes while learning can benefit memory, but only when the wrong answer is close to the right one. Random guesses can actually harm memory of the subject, the study found. The result held true for both young and old adults alike, with profound implications for clinical memory rehabilitation for the elderly. A process where participants are guided and encouraged to make the right kind of errors can be beneficial.

Mistakes (not random guesses) help learning, no matter the age


Credit: Morgan Cafe

“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 Andrée-Ann Cyr, a graduate student with Baycrest’s Rotman Research Institute and the Department of Psychology at the University of Toronto.

The research is controversial controversial considering past literature recommends the elderly to avoid making mistakes, unlike young adult who benefit from them.

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Cyr and colleagues enlisted 65 healthy younger adults (average age 22) and 64 healthy older adults (average age 72) and asked them to play a memory game. The participants had to learntarget 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 had were shown the categories or word stems and had to come up with the right answer.

The researchers found participants, young or old alike, were better at remembering words when they made wrong guesses prior to study them, as opposed to seeing the answer right away. This held true, however, only when the answers were learned by category. Guessing actually made memory worse when words were learned based on word stems (e.g., ro___).

This happens, the authors write, because the brain organizes information conceptually, instead of relating information by lexical family. When you think of the word “pear”, the next thing that might pop to mind is another fruit or some other kind of food (pear pie), instead of a similar word like “peer”. The conclusion is that wrong answers or guess only add value to the learning process when these are related to the right answer. The guess tulip may be wrong, but it is still conceptually close to the right answer rose (both are flowers). Also, by first having a guess instead of just memorizing the right answer, the brain is engaged in making connections that might prove useful in retrieving the right answer later on. Random guesses, on the other hand, clutter memory and inhibit learning.

Since the findings held true for both young and elderly adults alike, a shift in clinical procedure might be warranted.

“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 published online today in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition.