Category Learning Strategies in Younger and Older Adults: Rule Abstraction and Memorization

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Abstract

Despite the fundamental role of category learning in cognition, few studies have examined how this ability differs between younger and older adults. The present experiment examined possible age differences in category learning strategies and their effects on learning. Participants were trained on a category determined by a disjunctive rule applied to relational features. The utilization of rule- and exemplar-based strategies was indexed by self-reports and transfer performance. Based on self-reported strategies, the frequencies of rule- and exemplar-based learners were not significantly different between age groups, but there was a significantly higher frequency of intermediate learners (i.e., learners not identifying with a reliance on either rule- or exemplar-based strategies) in the older than younger adult group. Training performance was higher for younger than older adults regardless of the strategy utilized, showing that older adults were impaired in their ability to learn the correct rule or to remember exemplar-label associations. Transfer performance converged with strategy reports in showing higher fidelity category representations for younger adults. Younger adults with high working memory capacity were more likely to use an exemplar-based strategy, and older adults with high working memory capacity showed better training performance. Age groups did not differ in their self-reported memory beliefs, and these beliefs did not predict training strategies or performance. Overall, the present results contradict earlier findings that older adults prefer rule- to exemplar-based learning strategies, presumably to compensate for memory deficits.

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