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Older adolescents and adults can learn certain thinking skills including non-verbal reasoning more effectively than younger people, according to a new study which casts doubts on the saying ‘you can’t teach an old dog new tricks’. Researchers from University College London (ULC) in the UK, also highlights the fact that non-verbal reasoning skills can be readily trained and do not represent an innate, fixed ability.
“Although adults and older adolescents benefited most from training in non-verbal reasoning, the average test score for adolescents aged 11-13 improved from 60 per cent to 70 per cent following three weeks of ten-minute online training sessions,” said Professor Sarah-Jayne Blakemore from UCL. “This calls into question the claim that entry tests for selective schools that include non-verbal reasoning ‘assess the true potential of every child’,” said Blakemore.
The research involved 558 school pupils aged 11-18 and 105 adults, who were initially tested in various skills and then completed up to 20 days of online training in a particular skill before taking the tests again. They were then tested six months later to see whether the effect of training lasted.
The non-verbal reasoning test involved looking at a 3×3 grid of shapes with the final square left blank. Participants had to choose the correct shape to complete the pattern, and the shapes could vary by colour, size, shape and position. In another test, numerosity discrimination, participants were shown two groups of different coloured dots in quick succession and had to judge which group had the most dots.
“We find that these cognitive skills, which are related to mathematics performance, show greater training effects in late adolescence than earlier in adolescence,” said Lisa Knoll from UCL. “These findings highlight the relevance of this late developmental stage for education and challenge the assumption that earlier is always better for learning,” she said.
“We find that fundamental cognitive skills related to mathematics can be significantly trained in late adolescence,” she said. At the testing stages, volunteers were tested on various tasks, not just the ones they had trained in, to see if the training effects transferred to other skills. No transfer effects were observed, suggesting that the effect of training was specific to each task.
“Some ‘brain training’ apps claim to improve your IQ by getting you to practise a specific task such as the non-verbal reasoning task we used in our experiment,” said Delia Fuhrmann from UCL. The study was published in the journal Psychological Science.