Teaching Older People New Skills Easier Than Previously Believed

May 02, 1997

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. - The elderly can be taught new skills or enhance old ones more easily than previously believed, say researchers who adapted a variable-priority technique used by U.S. and Israeli fighter pilots in the last decade to heighten their abilities on multiple and often-times simultaneous tasks.

"This technique could become important as our aging society continues to grow, especially as baby boomers get older," said Arthur F. Kramer, a University of Illinois psychology professor. "The approach has shown promise with regard to improving skills needed for cognitive flexibility."

One place baby boomers are likely to be found is on the highways, where today's older drivers often complain of being overwhelmed by traffic congestion and related distractions, Kramer said. New training in which older drivers face varying challenges -- even the use of new technologies -- in a simulator or with specially developed videogames could help stave off cognitive deficits, he said.

In experiments at the U. of I. Beckman Institute for Advanced Science and Technology, 52 young adults (ages 18-29) and 48 older adults (ages 60-75) were taught two simple computer-based tasks: tracking a moving cursor with a joystick and using four different keys to cancel lighted corresponding squares.

One group (made up of members of both age groups) used a traditional fixed-priority approach in which subjects learned the tasks with equal attention given to each. The other group learned with a variable-priority method; subjects were exposed to both tasks but asked to vary their attention to each based on different percentages. Both groups were then given new and more difficult tasks to perform.

Subjects using the variable-priority were more effective in transferring their newly learned skills to new multiple-task situations. While the older subjects took more time to grasp the procedure, the end results for them were more dramatic than those for the younger participants. They developed better recall and were more adept at recognizing hidden patterns, Kramer said.

The age-related gap in overall performance was narrowed dramatically. The difference in abilities between young and old subjects declined by 29 percent for those using the variable-training technique, compared with a 13 percent decline by those in the fixed-priority group. The skills learned by the variable-priority technique also were fully retained by the subjects 60 days later.

"For many years, researchers and trainers have been taking tasks apart," Kramer said. "For driving, you can be taught the rules of the road, steering and navigating, but often these things are learned separately. You may become sufficient in the subskills, each of which is important, but can you coordinate them all adaptively? Can you adjust and stop doing things that you can afford to stop doing, and can you do so flexibly and quickly enough to avoid an accident?"

Kramer was joined in the research by graduate students John L. Larish, Timothy A. Weber and Lynn Bardell. The findings were presented in Israel last summer and will be published in early 1998 in

Attention & Performance XVII, a book that is part of a series from the MIT Press.

University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
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