Ask an Expert: Back to School

A reader wants to know: “I am turning 50 and have decided to pursue a life-long dream of getting a university degree. I’m a little worried that my memory and concentration skills aren’t what they used to be. Can you give me some studying tips?”

And here’s an answer from Dr. Angela Troyer, a clinical neuropsychologist and director of psychology at Baycrest:

Many people are asking this question, especially those who have lost their job and need to look for new work or a complete career change that may require upgrading skills or retraining.

Although it is true that some cognitive powers decline with age, it’s not all bad news. Some cognitive skills improve with age, and there are many techniques for compensating for those that do diminish.

You’ve got experience on your side
With age comes experience and knowledge, both of which are important for decision-making. For example, your knowledge about how you solved past problems can help you make smarter decisions when faced with new problems.

Give yourself more time
Because of a general slowing down of processing speed, it takes the average 50-year-old more time to take in new information, process that information and make decisions compared with a 20-year-old. Older students need to give themselves extra time in new learning situations, such as reading a textbook or working on an assignment.

Decrease distractions
Another age-related change is an increased vulnerability to distraction. Although your teenager appears able to study while simultaneously listening to music and texting friends, this becomes more difficult with increasing age. For better attention, focus on one task at a time, and study in a quiet place free of distraction.

Repeat information over time
Part of the challenge of returning to school is having to remember a lot of new information. Most people over 40 have noticed this is not as easy as it used to be.

Fortunately, research has provided us with useful tools and techniques to improve memory. One technique is to repeat the information often over time. Rather than cramming study periods into a few time slots, it is much more effective to use shorter study periods spaced apart over time. For example, when learning new concepts or facts, read the relevant information thoroughly, then quiz yourself immediately afterward, then again after a few minutes, a few hours, and the next day.


Stay organized
Organize your schedule to stay on top of assignments. We have a number of electronic tools to help us with this. A smartphone or other electronic organizer can help you file important information and recall it quickly, and remind you of class projects and deadlines.

Going back to school in middle age or later years is a wonderful opportunity for personal and professional growth. What one lacks in speed and raw memory power can be more than made up for by taking a smart approach and employing the strategies I’ve outlined above.

Photo © William Britten

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