8 Reasons to Continue Learning as an Adult
Your experience of education changes after leaving school.
Suddenly, it’s all optional. In theory, there’s no one there who doesn’t want to be there (even if their behaviour or expression doesn’t suggest it), and most people have a particular goal in mind. They’re not just studying because that’s the only option available to them; they’re learning because there’s something in particular that they want to learn, whether that’s for career advancement or for personal benefit. Some people return to education years after leaving it simply because they had the itch to learn more.
For all of these reasons, many people who hated school and even those who struggled as undergraduates find a lot of satisfaction in learning as an adult; and people who loved studying as a child or teenager go back to education to find that they love it even more now that they’re older. If you’re considering returning to the classroom as an adult, here are the top reasons why it could be a great choice to make.
1. It’s great to be in a classroom with people who want to learn
If you’ve never been in an educational setting as an adult, you might find it remarkable what a difference this can make. In school, you might have had some classes that your fellow students were more enthusiastic about than others, but ultimately, none of you had any choice about whether you were there or not. Even by the time you got to choose your own subjects, the options were between different subjects, not between going to school and doing something different altogether. In the UK, being in education or training is compulsory until 18, and it’s similar in most Western countries; even when the legal school leaving age is lower, staying in education is effectively compulsory for anyone who wants a reasonable job.
Much the same can be true at undergraduate level at university. In theory everyone is there by choice, but for a lot of people studying for an undergraduate degree is just a necessary process for getting the kind of job that they want, not an activity that’s enjoyable in its own right or that they would choose if they could get the job without it. And that shows in their behaviour: there’ll be fidgeting, there’ll be people who run out of the door if there’s the slightest chance the lecturer might not be showing up, and there’ll generally be a bit more rowdiness and unruliness that you’d expect for people doing an activity they chose for themselves.
When you’re first in a classroom where everyone has genuinely chosen to be there, which is usually only as an adult, you’ll notice how much calmer everything is. You get more done in an hour, not just because everyone has more educational experience (sometimes they won’t) but because no time is wasted hanging on for late comers or try to get the class to simmer down. There aren’t any student questions designed solely to waste time. Everyone’s there to learn, and what’s more, they’re making an active effort to contribute to that process. And when you’re not used to it, that’s a wonderful experience.
2. It’s an entirely different educational dynamic
At earlier educational stages, there’s a clear dynamic of authority in the classroom. Your teacher knows more than you; not only about their subject, but probably about most of the other subjects you’re doing, as well as about how ISAs work and how to fill in a tax return. They’re an accomplished adult, you’re not, and you’d probably have to defer to their authority even if they weren’t teaching you.
When you’re in education as an adult, that changes. Your teacher certainly ought to know more than you do about their subject, but it’s likely that you have expertise that they don’t in other areas, whether academic or vocational. If you lack confidence in your academic abilities, that can help a good deal on the occasions when you don’t know the answer to a question. It also means that your respect for them is earned and based on their abilities, rather than happening by default because of the difference in your ages and your roles. If you struggled at school because you chafed at authority, it’s refreshing to be in an educational environment where it would be weird for your teacher to tell you to tuck your shirt in. And if you tend towards shyness or extreme deference to authority, being in a classroom where you’re there by choice and listen to what your teacher says by virtue of their expertise, not their authority, can also help you to come out of your shell.
3. You know what direction you want your studies to take, and for what purpose
A further aspect of the studying that you do by default – school, and for some people, their undergraduate degree – is that it doesn’t necessarily have a purpose. You aren’t in Physics class because you passionately want to understand the mysteries of fluid dynamics, you’re there because if you were anywhere else you’d be in trouble for truanting. And that means that when there’s choice available, such as a topic for an end-of-term presentation, there are a lot of students who don’t really know what they want to do, because perhaps they never really wanted to be doing this in the first place.
When you’re learning as an adult, you’ll have a good reason to be there. Perhaps you’ve taken a Physics class because it relates to your work and you’re hoping it’ll contribute to a promotion. Or perhaps it’s because it’s always bugged you that you don’t really understand what a quark is when it isn’t a type of soft cheese. Either way, it means that your studies have purpose and direction, whether that’s a very specific thing that you want to learn about, or the expansion of your general knowledge. It makes choosing modules, figuring out your focus for the term and working out what to do next in your studies much easier. Best of all, it means that when there’s a boring bit, you’re still motivated by the purpose of your studies to plough through until it all becomes fascinating again.
4. You can enjoy education with less pressure
Failing an exam is never actually the end of the world, but the younger you are, the more it can feel like it is. At school, exams take up a lot of your mental energy; you’re often not focused on learning something because it’s interesting or valuable, but because it takes up half a page of the syllabus and is therefore almost certain to show up in a 8-mark question in Paper B. Worse still, there might be topics that are fascinating that your teacher will only skim over because they won’t appear on the exam, and there isn’t enough time before study leave to cover them in any detail.
As an adult, you won’t have to deal with this kind of stress for two reasons. One is that you’ve presumably already got the basic qualifications you need like GCSEs and A-levels; if you are studying towards a qualification, it may well be optional. That takes the stress down several notches. The second reason is that you might well have had more brushes with failure, and you know from experience that if you are taking an exam, and you do fail it, it’ll be irritating, but not a life-changing disaster. That means that studying as an adult isn’t wrapped up in stress and pressure in the way that it can be when you’re younger, and that makes it more enjoyable too.
5. You’ll have more context for what you learn
Education when you’re younger has much less context; you’ve probably not have that much experience of the workplace, and it may be the case (though it hopefully isn’t) that you’ve learned about each of the subjects you’ve studied in relative isolation, without much understanding of how they fit together or overlap. But when you’re older, you’ll have learned a lot more – not just what you’ve gained from years of academic study, but what you’ve come to understand in the workplace, and in the social settings that you encounter as an adult.
This provides a depth of understanding of what you learn as an adult that can be missing when you’re younger. It might be about understanding the adult dynamics at play in a novel that you’re studying, which might have passed you by when you were younger. Or it might be in seeing the practical applications of the mathematics that you’re studying, when you previously viewed it as all theory. This application of context makes what you’re studying more interesting, and helps you to understand it better.
6. It has benefits for your health
It might seem hyperbolic to say that continuing to learn as an adult could save your life (at least, if you’re not on a first aid course) but it’s true. In the UK, dementia is the leading cause of death for women and the second leading cause of death for men. Currently there’s no cure and no treatments that can slow or stop the progression of the diseases that cause dementia, but recent research has revealed a lot more about the risk factors for dementia, and one of the top ones is the number of years you’ve spent in education. Roughly speaking, the more years you’ve spent in education, the less likely you are to develop dementia in old age – even allowing for other factors that correlate with years spent in education, such as wealth.
One theory for why this is the case is the concept of cognitive reserve. Put very crudely, you can imagine the brain as a glass of water. Every time you learn something new, the glass gets bigger. Dementia causes water to spill out of the glass. If you have a smaller glass – a lower level of cognitive reserve – then you lose abilities quicker. If you have a larger glass, you have a lot more capacity to lose before your daily life becomes affected. At this stage, it’s just a theory, but with each additional year of education reducing dementia risk by 11%, it’s worth a go.
7. You’ll meet new and interesting people
One of the best things about learning as an adult can be your fellow students. Evening classes and similar adult education opportunities have long been something that people have attended with the aim of meeting new people and making new friends. Whatever the context of your education as an adult, there’s no reason why you shouldn’t do the same. Hanging around with an awesome group of people who are interested in learning the same things as you are, and who don’t need to get the parents’ permission to go for coffee after the lesson any more – what could be better?
Even if the people that you’re studying with aren’t necessarily future soulmates, adult education tends to draw in a more eclectic group of people than you might have met in classrooms previously, which can lead to some interesting conversations and debates.
8.It’s great fun
The obvious and best reason to carry on with education as an adult is because it’s fun. Freed from the various stresses of being a teenager, when you’re an adult, you get to engage in learning for the joy of it.
It might be that you’ll really enjoy getting to pace through libraries without an urgent essay deadline preventing you from exploring all the books that you find interesting. Or it might be that you find yourself staying up late on Google Scholar because you just had to find out an answer to that question that you thought of on the bus home, and you can’t bear to wait until the next class to ask your teacher. Or it could simply be that you’re really enjoying seeing all the progress you’re making in your studies and relishing every improvement in your abilities.
What have you enjoyed about education as an adult? Let us know in the comments.
Images: hermione granger; university teacher; graduate; relaxed student with laptop; looking at computers; smiling elders; coffee and a book; people jumping; university library