6 Things You Should Know About Learning as an Adult

It’s easy to imagine that learning stops once you leave university.

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‘Adult education’ brings to mind people who failed to get any qualifications the first time round, or possibly courses on watercolour painting or car maintenance. In a workplace context, we don’t usually talk about ‘education’ or ‘learning’, but instead ‘training’: a term that makes it very clear that the purpose of study is not the joy of learning or to expand your mind generally, but a focused aim to make you better at carrying out the job at hand. There’s a cultural idea that we study at school and university, and then we go to work and learn only work-based things, and learning for learning’s sake is something we only do again upon retirement.
Of course, the above is all nonsense. Very few people’s lives follow such a straightforward progression of school to university to work, to climbing the professional ladder in one specific career, to retirement. Most people in the 21st century try out more than one different career path; they might do a part-time Masters while at work; they might go to evening classes or spend a summer holiday at an adult summer school. Sometimes this is solely for the benefit of their career, sometimes it’s for interest’s sake alone, but more often it’s somewhere between the two: learning usually has career benefits even if they aren’t immediately obvious, and most career-focused training can be fascinating in its own right if it’s an area you’re passionate about.
If you’re contemplating study that falls outside the standard school, university and training pattern, here’s what you ought to know.

1. It isn’t that different from studying when you’re younger

It’s very tempting to fall into the trap of thinking that studying will be vastly different as an adult than as a child. You might rule out learning some things altogether (how to pronounce a language like a native speaker is usually something people think they can’t do as an adult), or assume that some things should be learned as a child and others as an adults. Admittedly, for some topics that’s true – we wouldn’t recommend teaching a five year old to drive – but that’s a rare exception.

The biggest barrier may be an assumption on your part.
The biggest barrier may be an assumption on your part.

Yes, there are some areas where if you learn as an adult you’ll never be outstanding. For instance, if you only take it up in your 20s, it’s unlikely you’ll ever become a world-class ballet dancer. But you shouldn’t let this put you off taking it up at all. After all, it’s perfectly possible to become a world-class runner in your 20s or even 30s for people who haven’t done that kind of exercise before, but that’s not the goal most people have in mind when they take up a morning jog, so why should it put you off taking up anything else that you might want to learn?
Nor does the way you learn change significantly when you’re older. You might be inclined to stop trying ‘childish’ learning methods like mnemonics, songs and colourful flashcards, and try approaches that are more grown-up (and usually, less fun). But in fact these techniques work just as well at any age. Adults can learn through games just as effectively as children can, if they can drop their inhibitions about trying it. So if your teacher tries to encourage you to do something that feels a bit daft for someone of your age, try going along with it – it might end up being a learning technique that (still) works for you.

2. Some things are harder to learn, but others are easier

As we discussed above, most people are aware that it’s harder to learn a new language as an adult, particularly if you want to be able to pronounce it well. One reason for this is that while we think about learning a language as an academic skill, it’s also a physical skill, given that you have to be able to form shapes with your teeth, lips and tongue that might be unfamiliar to you. Language learning has this in common with other skills that are best learned when you’re younger, like dance, playing a musical instrument and some sports – training your body to get used to the new movements is much easier as a child than as an adult.
But in no case does harder mean impossible, and if you have a knack for the subject, being older may not even slow you down. In some cases, you might even find the subject easier than you would have done when you were younger.

You'll find your capacity to focus is greater, for a start.
You’ll find your capacity to focus is greater, for a start.

There are plenty of reasons why this might be the case. For one, you’ve presumably learned more and had more experiences than your equivalent younger self. You can build on these – in the tricky area of language acquisition, for example, countless teachers have observed that students who are musical pick up challenging pronunciation more easily than their peers. So while you might now wish you’d learned French when you were younger, years spent in choir practice might be paying off. For another, the academic side of learning will probably come more easily to you; while you might have been able to learn German pronunciation more easily as a child, trying to disentangle datives and accusatives is definitely easier when it’s not the first time you’re learning how sentences are constructed.

3. You’ll do better with a teacher who really cares about the subject

When we get older, we sometimes think that we’re too mature to mind who’s teaching us. That’s especially the case if a lot of your continuing learning has been figuring things out for yourself on the job, or attending training courses run by people who only care about getting you to the point of earning a qualification. You might find yourself thinking that someone who cares deeply about the subject is going to be jumping around the classroom and enthusing wildly instead of focusing on teaching, and you’d sooner be taught by someone who’s going to prioritise the end goal.

At ORA we ensure that all the teachers on our adult programmes are passionate about their subjects.
At ORA we ensure that all the teachers on our adult programmes are passionate about their subjects.

But this is nonsense. No matter how old you are, an enthusiastic teacher will pass on their enthusiasm to you, and that will help engage and motivate you in the class. Enthusiasm doesn’t need to mean someone talking at a mile a minute and bouncing around the room, either. It can simply mean having a teacher who finds their subject fascinating and wants you to find it fascinating too, not only because that way you’ll be motivated to learn but also for its own sake.
How can you find a teacher who feels this way? Their eagerness to answer your questions might give it away. If not, try asking what their favourite part of the course is. Someone who’s fed up of teaching it might struggle to answer, whereas a teacher who cares about the subject might struggle only to choose among many highlights.

4. Adults usually focus on results

When you’re learning as a child, you’re usually happy to accept the idea that whatever you’re learning will be useful to you at some mysterious time in the future. Even if you’ve realised that it might not be, you go along with your school’s authority and accept that you’re going to have to learn it anyway.

You'll most likely have a stronger sense of self than you did as a teenager.
You’ll most likely have a stronger sense of self than you did as a teenager.

By contrast, any formal education you have as an adult usually has a purpose. It might be that your car keeps breaking down and you’d like to get a better understanding of why. It might be that you’re involved in a new project at work and you need training to carry it out properly. Or it might be that you’re working towards a qualification that will help you get promoted. This leaves adults generally prioritising results, whether that comes in the form of an immediate demonstration that your hard work is having an impact, or in the form of an accreditation or other recognition. This is even more the case if you work in a results-driven industry.
If results are what you care about, then great, keep it up. But if you’re studying something where it’s normal to take a while to show progress, or where you’re learning for the love of it rather than because of any expected outcomes, it can help to keep an eye on this impulse in yourself, so that you can keep it in check if need be. It might help to create your own way of measuring your progress, so that you can satisfy yourself that you’re getting what you wanted out of your classes without tying yourself to a more formal examination process. Or it might simply help to be conscious of the impulse to look for results, so that you can ignore it when it starts nagging at you.

5. It helps to talk to your peers

People are often inhibited about talking to their peers about their studies, and it gets worse if it’s a subject that’s outside of your usual area of expertise. There’s an understandable desire not to seem ignorant, especially if you’re used to being one of the more knowledgeable people in any given group. As a result, you might avoid discussing your studies with your fellow studies at anything more than a superficial level. You might also have been discouraged from it by a competitive workplace.
But talking to your peers can have huge benefits. One obvious benefit is that it’s a quick way to pick up on whether or not you’ve misunderstood something, or if the whole class has been just as confused by a particular point as you have. Explaining what you’ve learned to someone else – which is a natural consequence of discussing your studies – is an effective way to shore up your understanding of it. An immediate revision straight after the class might not seem valuable, but it can ensure that what you’ve learned gets fixed in your mind.

Talking to your peers can have huge benefits.

When you’re in a class of adults, there are further advantages to talking things over with your peers that you might not have experienced when you were at school. After all, at school you’re likely to spend most of your time with friends who were studying most of the same subjects and who had had most of the same life experiences as you. That’s not the case when you’re in a class with adult peers. Chances are, their route to the same studies as you could have been very different; they might have taken different school subjects or been homeschooled, studied something different at university, or worked in a different place. All of these things contribute to give them a perspective on what you’re learning that could be markedly different from your own. It’s worth talking to them about your studies to see what insights you might glean from this different and distinctive way of looking at what you’ve learned.

6. Trying out new ways of studying is still worthwhile

Dust off your flashcards and mind maps and see what you can do!
Dust off your flashcards and mind maps and see what you can do!

You might think that you perfected your study technique when you were doing your A-levels – perhaps even your GCSEs. That having got the grades you wanted back then, you now just need to study in the exact same way to achieve the same good results.
It shouldn’t surprise you that it doesn’t really work like that. It makes sense, really; the study techniques that worked when you had the careful direction of school life to help focus you don’t naturally translate to adult life, when you have a different set of distractions and goals. That means you shouldn’t rest on your laurels; it’s still worth following up on any study tips your teacher gives you, even if they’re not ones that worked for you in the past, and generally remaining open-minded about trying new study techniques when you encounter them. Just as you might find that your taste in music or food has changed since you were at school, so too might the best ways of revising or motivating yourself to work on your studies.

What have your experiences been of studying as an adult? Share your thoughts and ideas in the comments!

Image credits: desk; workspace; man reading; woman working; motivational posters; cups of tea; notes


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