Adult Learners Adult Education Returning to Education going Back to School

All too often the word “education” conjures images of school and youthfulness. It’s an unhelpful association which can create anxieties in adult learners who see themselves in a different category.

One of the chief concerns of people returning to education is the spectre of old dogs struggling with new tricks – whether they can absorb information with the same sponge-like ease as their young peers, or as they did a few years or decades earlier. In particular, many worry that they may be slow on the uptake and need more time or clarification than everyone else. Once the course has started, they will hopefully notice a whole spectrum of learning speeds; some classmates will be quicker, some slower. Unfortunately, for a few adult learners anxiety and self-consciousness creates a vicious circle: the more anxious they are about how well they’re doing, the harder it is to take in the information at hand.

Alongside fears that they have changed personally, returning students sometimes worry that education itself has changed and become reliant on new or unfamiliar technologies. Adult students can come from a variety of environments, not all of which are highly mechanized. But even when the course technology is similar to what they use in other settings, education can carry the mystique of being ultra-modern and cutting-edge.

Technology is one aspect of a modern educational system, but not the only one. It’s easy to forget that taking a course requires two major learning tasks: learning the course material, and learning “the ropes” of your school. Students need to know how to enrol, submit coursework, use the library and other resources, and get help. There are also “soft” issues such as knowing where and how people congregate socially.  Adult students who have been out of an institutional setting for a while, or in a completely different one, can feel daunted by the prospect of having to learn and slot quickly into an unfamiliar system. 

The anxieties above can be more keenly felt in full-time or formal courses with a mix of first-time and returning students. But what about informal part-time or evening classes comprised mainly of adult learners? One discomfort adult learners can still experience in the friendliest of conditions is an odd sense of guilt. Returning to education in later years can, for some people, feel “self-indulgent” as though people over thirty should stay put in whatever bed they’ve made for themselves and devote their time to work or home. Others feel they’re barging into where they don’t really belong; an interloper stealing the educational candy from babies.

The anxieties of adult student are like all anxieties: spectres in the shadows of what’s unknown or unfamiliar. In the clear light of day, most adult learners quickly recognize that all students are individuals and each has unique strengths and weakness. They may well approach learning in a different way than they did before or their younger classmates do because they’ve come for different reasons and can place what they hear into a larger context of life skills and experiences.