Returning to Learning

by Laurie Pawlik-Kienlen

Returning to Learning

Returning to the halls of formal learning can be intimidating for mature students. But more and more older students are switching career paths, learning new skills, or pursuing their dreams.

September represents a fresh start in so many ways. Thousands of learners are returning to school— some with excitement, others with trepidation. For mature students, those feelings may be amplified. So let’s start now: these little lessons will inspire seasoned pupils to sail through school.

Lesson 1: Never alone

“A great number of people go back to school later in life,” says Calgary-based psychologist Susan MacDonald. “I taught in the Faculty of Graduate Studies at the University of Calgary for many years, and the vast majority of students are in their thirties, forties, and fifties. I’ve even had students in their sixties.”

A 2011 report projected that over the next decade, the number of 18- to 24-year-old students enrolled full time at Canadian post-secondary institutions will decline. The number of mature students, however, is set to increase slightly.

The takeaway: Now is a great time for mature students to enrol. We’ll be in good company.

Lesson 2: Strength in numbers

Connecting with other mature students is a positive way to navigate the sometimes tumultuous ocean of adult learning. Whether we’re going back to school formally (taking part- or full-time courses at a local college or university) or informally (auditing courses or taking an online class for interest’s sake), we should make time to connect with those adult learners, even if they aren’t in our program or faculty of study.

The takeaway: With a group of people to lean on and learn from when the seas get rough, we’ll feel more stable and supported.

Lesson 3: A little help

“Open and ongoing communication is essential,” says MacDonald. “Let people know when you will need the most support. Often, students feel stress toward the end of each semester, when papers are due and exams are scheduled.”

Many adult learners are going to school alongside their elementary- and high school-aged children.

“Soliciting help from family and friends was all about childcare for me,” says Kim Pierrot, a pastor, mother of three, and doctoral candidate at Carey Theological College in Vancouver. “My husband and parents helped with my children’s school pickups and after-school activities so I could be in class. My husband would also occasionally take kids out for the day so I could work on my school assignments.”

The takeaway: Now is the time to learn how to reach out to family and friends.

Lesson 4: Morning lark or night owl?

Pierrot planned her schedule around her natural rhythms.

“It helped to figure out when my mind was most alert, and capitalize on that time,” she says. “Writing and studying in the afternoon and late into the night didn’t work for me anymore … but early mornings were golden.”

Pierrot also found that she couldn’t cram for tests the way she used to, nor could she stay up all night writing essays due the next day. “Now, not only is it rare that I have a full uninterrupted day or two; I’ve learned that it is actually much more productive to write or study in little chunks at a time. Even a consistent hour or two a day—especially at the right time of day—can be really productive.”

The takeaway: Becoming aware of our natural circadian rhythms can help us be more productive and better at managing our time.

Lesson 5: Essential self-care

“Maintaining physical and emotional health is essential to managing your workload at school,” says MacDonald. “Sleep is the foundation for health and well-being. Diet and exercise will keep you mentally sharp. Take frequent breaks when studying by doing some simple deep breathing and stretching. Yoga and meditation are fantastic stress busters.”

She adds that socializing with fellow students is important for both mental well-being and academic success. However, it’s important for each of us to know our individual style of coping with stress. Introverts who are energized by being alone (as opposed to extroverts who love being with people) may prefer to cast off and sail on their own for a little while.

“Taking time off was important for me,” says Pierrot. “I took a regular day off, and I allowed myself to take a break from the due dates. Sometimes it’s hard to walk away, especially if something isn’t quite done. But I find if I take a break from things for a day, I have a fresh perspective when I return.”

The takeaway: We can follow Pierrot’s lead: if we have pockets of unexpected time when we could study, we shouldn’t always use that time for school.

Lesson 6: We can do this

It’s normal for adult learners to wonder, “What the heck was I thinking?”—especially when academic due dates, work-related deadlines, kids’ school concerts or projects, and spousal commitments all coincide.

“Life is like that sometimes,” Pierrot says. “Take a deep breath, ask for help, and do your best with everything that demands your time and attention. Don’t expect too much from yourself. You might have to settle for a C+ on your project, but if someone … was observing how you juggled everything that was thrown at you, you would get an overall A.”

The takeaway: We need to tell ourselves that everything will be okay. We have enough time, and everything will get done.

How to fit learning in

Try these tips from psychologist Susan MacDonald:

  • Plan ahead and schedule assignments.
  • Pace yourself.
  • Start projects early.
  • Study while the kids do their homework.
  • Seek help if stuck.
  • Reach out to the instructor if feeling overwhelmed or uncertain about what is required.
  • Check with the school’s student services office to see what resources are available.

Supplements for students

Fish oil may lessen the body’s reaction to stress (by blunting a change in heart rate, for instance). Fish oil has benefits for students of all ages: one of its main ingredients, docosahexaenoic acid, has shown promise in preliminary research in improving learning behaviour in children, especially those struggling with reading.

  • Theanine has been shown to relax the brain and improve memory and learning.
  • Camomile may help induce sleep and exerts a calming effect.
  • Resveratrol, an antioxidant found in red grapes and wine, may improve memory performance in older adults, according to early studies.

Speak with a health care practitioner before trying new supplements.

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