Older students need not have problems coping with age differences between them and their young classmates (and even the instructor). It’s really a matter of attitude, tolerance, and acknowledgment of the most important thing: Every student in the class is of equal status. Age imparts no special privileges nor even respectful deference from anyone, except those granted to each student by means of common courtesy and respect.
Attitude and tolerance
Older students need to be very self-possessed and easygoing if they want to avoid conflict from younger students. Returning to the classroom after a long absence can be somewhat disconcerting, especially when observing younger students who may not be particularly dedicated, but who seem to absorb the material quickly and effortlessly.
Older students, by reason of aging, do not learn as quickly, but they tend to apply themselves more diligently and seriously. It is important to recognize that the younger students are at a different stage in their lives and most often have different educational goals. Those goals may be as prosaic as just getting through the class with the least amount of effort and work. The best advice is to let the instructor handle flippant attitudes and to refrain from any critical remarks or judgments.
Everyone is equal, but some are more equal than others.
As Rock Hudson once said in a movie about submarines, “We’re on a first-name basis here. My first name is Captain.” So the equality bit applies only to students, not the teacher. The teacher wields total power and it is best to behave in a manner that shows deference to that fact. Teachers will, naturally, treat older students somewhat differently than the younger ones, but older students need to set an example of subordination and deportment in dealing with the teacher.
Younger students are sometimes uncomfortable with having older classmates, especially in situations where classwork requires collaboration and group projects. Older classmates need to remember, again, that all students are equal. Younger students tend to resent pushy or aloof oldsters. The best practice for older students is to let their class presence, participation, and work speak for themselves. Younger students will quickly come to regard good students who are older as a resource to the class as a whole or in group projects in particular. It is best, though, to keep a low profile and wait to be asked.
No special privileges
Older students need to get used to the fact that they have no special privileges or authority in class by virtue of their age. In group work, particularly, conflicts and disagreements often arise as to goals and direction, or there may be at least one student group member who is holding everyone back. Older students must simply abandon the “parent-child” relationship here. The only “parent” in the class is the teacher, who should be consulted in private when problems arise.
The friendly, relaxed, and smiling older student, who is in the class to learn and contribute will ultimately be admired and accepted by the younger students. Grouchy and contentious know-it-alls constantly alluding to “back in my day” poison the classroom atmosphere and get in the way of learning. The older student, then, can be a role model and contributor, or a pain in the neck for the teacher and the rest of the class.
For more good advice on going back to school as an adult, see About.com’s Continuing Education article “5 Tips for Going Back to School as An Adult”