“This would probably be easier for you to learn if you were younger.”

My preschool teacher and I. It's all been downhill from there.
My preschool teacher and I. It’s all been downhill from here.

The original plan was to blog about my goals for the summer, but I bring to you an important message on ageism instead!

Ageism:  stereotyping and discriminating against individuals or groups on the basis of their age. (Wikipedia)

Yesterday, someone questioned my ability to learn a new concept because of my age.

The person who made this remark is someone I’ve known for the past year or so and have met several times. It’s not like this was just some random person on the street. They’re a fellow computer science student (traditionally aged) at Queen’s — in fact, normally we agree on many things, like combating prejudice in the tech field.

Anyway, they were trying to teach me the difference between functional and imperative programming. I didn’t catch on and asked a question to clarify.

They replied, “This would probably be easier for you to learn if you were younger.”

(Sidenote: I am always suspicious of a teacher who blames their student’s inability to learn instead of examining their own teaching practice.)

The real surprise here is that I hadn’t encountered overt ageism until yesterday, even if this particular example of ageism was small and kind of hilarious instead of tragic. I can’t control what other people think about my decrepit age, but to any mature student reading this, I’ve got a message for you:

Don’t believe the haters. Believe in yourself!

Age-related cognitive decline is a lot more complicated than the media (and 20-year-old comp sci students) would have you think.

For example, check out “The Role of Aging in Adult Learning” by David L. Crawford at the Johns Hopkins School of Education:

Using a longitudinal study over a period of several decades, Schaie (1994) noted that scores on primary mental abilities improved gradually until about age forty at which time the abilities tend to stabilize until approximately age sixty. The decreases are small until the mid seventies at which time scores are usually measurably lower than they were in the mid twenties. Therefore, when a composite measure of mental abilities is used, learning ability does not decrease until the sixth or even seventh decade for most individuals. The significance of this seminal study seems to be that noticeable overall mental decline in the primary abilities does not generally occur until later in life.

We don’t have to start worrying until our mid-70s!

And while I haven’t read Timothy A. Salthouse’s Major Issues in Cognitive Aging, it’s now on my to-read list because of this lovely quotation (found in Amanda Enayati’s “The aging brain: Why getting older just might be awesome”):

Although there is no shortage of opinions about cognitive aging, it sometimes seems that relatively few of the claims are based on well-established empirical evidence … assertions about cognitive aging may be influenced as much by the authors’ preconceptions and attitudes as by systematic evaluations of empirical research.

In her article, Enayati summarizes Salthouse’s points: “[He] goes on to make two more significant observations about cognitive aging: Discoveries of decline in the laboratory do not necessarily correlate to success out in the real world, and there is often considerable variation among different people of the same age.”

Look, even if this myth of significant cognitive decline starting, apparently, in our early twenties was true (which it isn’t!), does it even matter? I believe our life experience, emotional intelligence, self-awareness, and sense of perspective grant us more than enough wisdom so that, on balance, we are going to do just fine.

So don’t let the haters get you down — even if it’s just a silly little throwaway comment over coffee. Don’t believe a word of it. If you’re on the fence right now and wondering if you’re too old to go back to school — well, take it from me: You are never too old to learn! Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.

And if anyone does tell you otherwise, the correct response is always, “Yeah, imagine how much smarter I’d be than you if I were your age!”

Then you can listen to some sassy Lily Allen to get you back in the right frame of mind.

School’s out! What I learned about learning this term

Millie snoozing on my sunny coffee table while I finish up a CISC 124 assignment.
Millie snoozing on my sunny coffee table while I finish up a CISC 124 assignment.

Sorry for my absence these past couple weeks! One of my original goals was to post weekly, but … oh, well. Another promise I made to myself was “feel no guilt”!

What have I been up to? Well, the final exam for CISC 124 was this past Tuesday, so I was finishing upthe course’s  last two assignments and studying for the exam. My time has been taken up even more, though, by really buckling down and working with little Millie.

(As some of you know, Millie is both the joy and bane of my life: she’s smart, athletic, hilarious, and sassy, but she is also recovering from leash reactivity toward other dogs, and her crazy smarts and energy get her into trouble on the daily. Now that school has come to a close and work is wrapping up for the summer, I’ve found a wonderful trainer to help me learn how to communicate better with my pup.)

More on that later!

Today, I thought I would list a few things I’ve learned from CISC 124 this term.

Weekly review really does make a difference

One of my initial goals for this course was to consolidate and review my lecture notes at the end of each. I did manage to do this more often than not, but I definitely noticed whenever I failed to do so — my understanding of the concepts suffered, so writing those assignments took longer. However, perhaps because I still found the course overall pretty easy, it was still tough to feel motivated enough to sit down and organize myself like this at the end of each week.

In Student Affairs, we talk a lot about “student development theory.” One popular theory is from Nevitt Sanford in 1966, who wrote about the need for a “support/challenge balance.” My experience in CISC 124 lacked sufficient challenge, so I didn’t feel as engaged in maintaining my learning strategies and habits as I could have been.

However, I do know that when I encounter a tougher course, I will really rely on this habit to keep me up-to-date and fluent with the course content!

Sit at the front of the class

During my (first) undergraduate degree, I always sat at the back of the auditorium, or at most very solidly in the middle of the room. Sitting at the front? No way! Too exposed. Too keen. Did not allow for whispering with my friend. (Each year during my undergrad, a different prof would reprimand me for somehow being disruptive. Very embarrassing.)

But these days, I’m not as interested in whispering with my classmates and I clearly do not worry about looking keen. I also can’t hear or see as well from the back of the auditorium. In fact, I have no idea how 17-year-old me could hear or see from back there, either. What was I thinking?? To be fair, I definitely jack up the volume on my earbuds when I go for a run, so maybe my hearing has declined. Either way, though, whenever I could leave work early enough to sit in the first 2-3 rows, I did so. My notes were always better, I drifted off less, and I didn’t miss anything.

Never buy the textbook

Okay, maybe “never” is too strong a word. But I’ve now taken two computer science courses and one mathematics course at Queen’s. Each time, the professor has recommended I buy the textbook. For CISC 124, the professor said “You definitely, definitely want the textbook.” So I dutifully went to the bookstore and spent hundreds of dollars, as requested.

Have I ever needed the books?

Nope.

Call me naive, but when a prof says “You really need this textbook in the class,” I expect to actually need the textbook in the class. Nothing from the textbook couldn’t be gleaned from the lectures. We did not get tested on anything from the textbook. I’ve done very well in all these classes — and never needed to check the book.

Now, I get that I’m not just in school here to get good grades. I should be in school for the sake of learning! But when that extra textbook learning costs hundreds of dollars on top of tuition, well… No, thanks.

Coming from a humanities background, I found class readings were crucial. Assignments, essays and tests all depended on knowing the content of the readings as well as what happened in lecture. In a pinch, maybe you could check out Wikipedia or SparkNotes — but your grades would definitely suffer for it, and you certainly wouldn’t get your money’s worth in the course.


In other news, last week I received my acceptance from Simon Fraser University. I was also admitted to Queen’s computer science program some time ago. Hopefully I’ll hear back from the University of British Columbia in early May (like I’ve read online), since I gave my landlord notice that I’m moving out at the end of June!