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Sarah Stuart reveals the challenges of MBA study in her weekly blog

Sarah Stuart: How to ward off senility

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Can a middle aged student remember what they learn? Photo / Thinkstock
Can a middle aged student remember what they learn? Photo / Thinkstock

It's a sentence to claim your last ounce of youthful hope, a reminder that your mind may no longer be your friend, an unbidden whisper in your ear - "senility is just around the corner".

It came from a website for a US university supposedly encouraging those in their mid-years to study. I read it, horrified, in the week before I took my first class.

"As people move into their 40s and 50s, many, but not all, of them notice memory problems. They may find it harder to learn new things and may forget where they put things: glasses, keys and purses."

It was supposed to be a "learning tip" for those returning to university, a warning that exams would not be perhaps as you recalled from your youth; it came with such helpful advice as "learn to accept your changing physiology" and "do only one mental task at a time".

I remember decades ago cramming enough into my fragmented teenage mind to pass school exams, leaving the classroom with almost no recollection of what I had written.

A week later it was all gone, never to return. The memory of my youth was as fleeting as a teenage crush.

So it was with particular trepidation I approached my first exam at the University of Auckland last year. Heart pounding, eyes on stalks, the Saturday morning timing adding to the strangeness of it all.

And they sure do know how to make you sweat. My MBA exam for Accounting - the final hurdle in 10 weeks of twice a week, four-hour lectures and what seemed like days with a young Asian tutor - was ruled by force. File into the enormous lecture-theatre single file. Do not speak to anyone. Sit at least three desks apart. Student identity card must be left on the desk. Bags and phones to the front of the room. Only a calculator, your notes and pens allowed on the desk.

At the front of the room was a formidably large woman with a South African accent who barked orders at two-minute intervals. A range of supervisors roamed the room. I thought I wouldn't remember my phone number let alone when to capitalise borrowing costs (answer: "if it's a qualifying asset").

But here is where the joy of a middle-aged memory kicks in. Yes, I did remember what I had learned. What's more, I remember much of it now. Because what that Texas State University's prejudicial tips for older learners had failed to recognise, is that studying later in life means really absorbing the information and even locking it away.

I and fellow executive students had listened intently in each class, taken copious notes and reflected on them before the next session. We were diligent about data, keen to learn useful inventory tricks, interested in what financial ratios really matter when deciding whether to invest.

That learning, even for a mathematically-disabled student such as myself, was a joy. So it stuck. With a trembling pen and a scientific calculator I still wasn't comfortable working with, I finished the exam in the allotted three hours and drove home with a sense of elation that is with me still.

Mature students remember stuff that matters to them. And when you're interested in business, that's pretty much everything. It's not easy, of course, and nor should it be. But it does stick, changing physiology and all.

- NZ Herald

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