Learning in Adulthood

As was emphasized earlier in the chapter, maintaining an interest in the physical and social environment and continuing to use one's problemsolving skills can help arrest declines in intellectual functioning with age. Whatever their age may be, adults who keep up with current events and continue to explore their world through reading, conversations, course work, and hobbies experience less decline in cognitive abilities (Jarvik & Bank, 1983; Schaie, 1983; Siegler, 1983). Furthermore, the effects of heredity on cognition abilities persist into late life. Environment and heredity are equally influential in the ability to think and remember even after age 80 (McClearn et al., 1977).

The popular belief that old people have trouble learning new things because they are "set in their ways," and because old memories and experiences get in the way of the new, may have some merit. But even though learning performance may decline in older adulthood, in most cases, the decline is not marked until after age 70 or so (Arenberg & Robertson-Tchabo, 1980). However, the behavior of most people is fairly modifiable or plastic even in later life. With appropriate motivation, sufficient time, and expert instruction, and an environment that is conducive to learning, older adults can continue to expand their capabilities, interests, and attitudes. Even individuals in poor health or those who, for other reasons, are handicapped and limited in their abilities can benefit from patient, flexible, and insightful instruction. Some of the general characteristics of older learners that should be taken into account are that (1) they prefer a slower instructional pace, (2) they are more cautious and hence inclined to make more errors of omission, (3) they are more disrupted by emotional arousal, (4) they are less attentive, (5) they are less likely to use imagery and other mnemonic schemes or mediators spontaneously, and (6) they are less willing to learn material or procedures that they view as irrelevant to their lives (Aiken, 1995). Note that these are general characteristics of the population of older learners and may not apply to a specific person.

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