How to Study When You’re Older: A Step-by-Step Guide


You’re going back to school after many years of being away, or because of a career change, or you are re-entering the workforce after staying at home raising the kids. If you’re going back to school in your mid-40’s or 50’s, you are probably wondering if you can keep up with your studies like your younger classmates. And what about that adage, “You can’t teach an old dog new tricks?”

Wondering how to study when you’re older? Follow this step-by-step studying guide to pass your classes:

  • Focus on one class at a time.
  • Work to understand the material rather than memorize it.
  • Relate new material to what you already know.
  • Study in small sections – don’t cram!
  • Test yourself often to increase knowledge.
  • Learn new technology.
  • Take good notes.

Going back to school when you’re older may be a challenge, but it is not impossible. Keep reading to learn how and why you’ll do better in school now than you would have in your 20s.

Starting Over at 50 in a New Career

One of the main reasons you are going back to school is to start over with a new career, right? 

It may be that you’re returning to the workforce after raising your children and managing a household. Or, your company is downsizing, and you’re laid off. For whatever reason, you need to learn a new skill or earn a different degree to start over. It’s not easy.

Going back to school after 20+ years is never easy, and it is quite a bit different today than it was back then. Computer technology has advanced drastically to the point where it may be unrecognizable. On the other hand, you might be familiar with most of the technology, and only need to brush up on your skills. 

You need to become familiar with things younger students have grown up with and taken for granted.

While college is now very expensive, you can find loans and/or grants as a non-traditional student to help pay for school. The AARP Foundation provides scholarships for older adults over 40, provided you have low income, and are enrolled in an accredited US college or university. 

Another funding source for women over 35 is the Jeanette Rankin Foundation, which gives scholarships to those who are pursuing a degree from an accredited college or university, living in the United States or US provinces. 

You can find other ways to start a new career that need not be expensive. 

  • If you are employed and you need more education or skills to advance in your career, your employer might foot the bill, providing you stay employed for a specific time frame with your company. 
  • Some colleges offer college credit for life or work experience for older students if you take an exam showing your proficiency.
  • Take stock of your skills and experiences to discover what can transfer to a new career. The chances are that you may not need a full degree to advance in your career or get into a new career. You might need only a few more classes. 
  • Corporate training programs may be an option if your company operates its own “universities” for its employees. 

College is just one way to get a new career and is the focus of this guide. 

If you find yourself needing to go back to college, and are afraid that you won’t make it because you are much older than traditional students, this study guide will help you get through school without too many bumps in the road.

The Aging Brain and School

How to Study When You’re Older_ A Step-by-Step Guide

It is a misconception that the middle-age brain loses its ability to learn new things. While declines in processing and memory have been recorded, according to the American Psychological Association, the middle-age brain excels in abstract and spatial reasoning skills, simple math ability, and verbal abilities. 

People in their 50s and 60s experience no mental decline, as the brain rewires itself well into middle age while hanging onto prior experiences and abilities. The article also states that aging brains are calmer and less neurotic than younger minds, allowing for fewer emotional distractions than younger brains.

Going back to school later in life presents different challenges, but you may find you understand the material a lot better now. Scientific American reported that middle-aged students when in a supportive learning environment, can learn just as well as their younger counterparts – much like a young child learns.

Why, then, do people often assume that they must focus only on maintaining, rather than growing, their cognitive abilities once they reach middle age? 

It has long been thought that the aging brain cannot handle learning new skills like in childhood, and if people stayed active to maintain those skills, cognitive abilities would not decline in old age. Further information shows this to be false, as people can learn new things well into old age.

Studying and Learning as an Older Student

Life experiences contribute to your learning capacity, as you can relate new concepts to what you’ve already learned through your experiences and wisdom. Because people are entering college later in life, some colleges are offering credits for work and life experience to reduce the number of classes needed to earn a degree. 

Learning as an older adult comes with challenges, but not as many as you would think. Many learning strategies suggested for younger learners can apply to older learners as well. 

For example, reading through the test material is not considered studying, especially if you read it only once or twice. To review, you should take notes, write a summary of the content, and then teach it to yourself in the mirror. Studying is more of an immersive experience than a passive one.

Studying as an older adult takes some getting used to, but with time, you will be able to settle into a good routine customized to your learning style.

The last point to consider is that after managing a household along with a career or raising children, you have an advantage over younger classmates. Time management skills are something that younger students struggle with, but you are an expert at. 

Managing several classes per semester may be easier than you think. Your life experiences will help you prioritize assignments and tests. Don’t believe that you can’t go to school just because you’re older. You may be better suited for school because you’re older and wiser.

Please note: Your brain’s processing speed may be a bit slower as an older student, so you need to adjust your study methods accordingly. But you just need to study differently than you are used to. Just because you aren’t 20 years old anymore doesn’t mean you can’t learn or memorize new concepts. 

Step One: Focus on One Class at a Time

While studying, don’t tackle several classes or subjects at one time. Multiple sources of information at one time can confuse you rather than help you. It is also difficult for younger students to do this, as well.

Studying more than one class at a time is multitasking, which rarely works while studying. Multitasking is okay for the other parts of your life. But when you are trying to learn new concepts, it can overwhelm and distract you, which is detrimental to learning.

Studying for long periods is non-conducive to learning. And you may find you learn less than you would with shorter study sessions, which can move the class material into your long term memory. Studies show that when studying in short bursts, such as 10 minutes or so, can rewire your memory for long term storage.

As an older student with perhaps a slower processing speed, focusing on one class at a time can create a deeper understanding of the material and keep it for long term memory retrieval when you need it. 

Pro-tip: When studying, put away all other materials and distractions. Choose the class to start with and set out your study materials, including your class notes, textbook, and other study materials. Set a timer for a reasonable amount of time and get to work. When the timer goes off, take a break, then repeat this process with another class, or take a more extended break.

Step Two: Work to Understand, Rather than Memorize, the Material

Memorization and processing skills tend to decline with age. Rather than lamenting this process and thinking you’re not able to attend college later in life, you can do things differently to keep up with your younger peers. 

One step you can take is to work to understand the overall message rather than memorize the material. You will still need to remember facts and other information. But if you know the presented material, you’re much more likely to get better grades. Understanding also keeps your brain synapses firing, which has been proven to keep it sharp in old age

When you were in elementary and middle school, rote memorization got you through tests. In high school, you needed to have some understanding of the material at least, but overall, memorization still got you by. If you attended college in your earlier years, you might remember that memorization helped somewhat, but understanding the material was more important.

The best way to understand the material, rather than memorizing it, is to create connections between the concept and real-life scenarios.

For example, if you are taking classes to finish your Master’s degree in Law, and you’ve worked as a legal secretary for many years, you can relate any concept to your experiences as a legal secretary. 

A law concept like quid pro quo, which is “something for something” in Latin, could be connected to a case you worked on through your employment. When testing on that concept later in class, you will recall the previous example to remember the answer.

Or, if you are enrolled in a culinary program, relate those concepts to your past cooking experiences, such as learning knife skills, or making whipped cream. 

As you prepare to go back to school, understanding the material will be vital to pass your classes. 

Pro tip: Reading your textbooks is not like reading a novel, so skimming the material will not help you master the material. Take your time and read through the content once, then go back and start taking notes for the second, third, and maybe fourth time through. When you feel like you’ve mastered the material, move on. Doing this will help you understand rather than memorize.

Step Three: Relate New Material to What You Know Already

With age comes life experience, as well as wisdom, and a calmer disposition. Younger students don’t have that, so you have a distinct advantage as you have more overall knowledge to draw from when going through your classes. 

If you relate what you are learning to what you already know, you will recall the new material much quicker.

Perhaps you’ve already attended college before, and have some background in the topic you are going back to school to study, which can then be applied to new material. Or, perhaps you worked for 25 years in the same industry you are going to school for, so likewise, this knowledge will help you assimilate the new information.

But what if you’ve never had professional or educational experience in this new field? You may still have relevant experience. For example, say you are entering the Accounting field, but you have no professional experience. 

However, if you have managed your household expenses up to this point, you already know what a balanced budget looks like. Relate your studies to what you have already done. 

As with the previous step, relating concepts to your past experiences will help you recall the answers later on exams. Being an older student, you can use this to your advantage, as your life experiences have prepared you for this moment.

Pro tip: Create a mind map when faced with new concepts. On a piece of paper, write the word representing the new concept in the middle of the paper. Then, write other ideas related to that word in a circle, drawing lines to the middle term. The goal of this is to help you remember concepts through association from other words, as well as relating it to what you already know.

Step Four: Study in Small Sections – Don’t Cram!

How to Study When You’re Older_ A Step-by-Step Guide

Cramming the night before a test barely works for younger students, so it probably won’t be a good idea for you. According to The Learning Center from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, lengthy study sessions cause you to lose concentration and give you overall more unsatisfactory performance on tests.

They recommend, instead, to break your study sessions into short increments. Not only is this beneficial for your physical health, but it also helps you retain information longer as it provides a deeper understanding of the material. 

As mentioned previously, short study sessions can help you memorize the material much quicker, as your brain is not overwhelmed with a lot of new content all at once. Also, when you take planned distraction breaks, you give your mind a chance to process the information you just learned, before inputting new data.

Cramming before a test is detrimental to your brain, as you will remember less when it is time to take the test. When you’re working to understand the material, rather than memorizing it, small study sessions will help you assimilate the content better.

Pro tip: As soon as you know the date of your next test, start studying small sections of the material and reviewing it to familiarize yourself with the content. Create notes, take practice tests, or write summaries of the section you are studying. Then take a short break – go for a walk, get a snack, or take a restroom break. 

Rome was not built in a day, and you won’t earn your degree in a month, so relax and take your time. 

Step Five: Test Yourself Often While Studying

While on the same topic of studying in small blocks, if you test yourself while you’re reviewing, you can retain the new material better. 

One study showed how taking practice tests could help improve your long term memory. It involved 120 participants tasked with learning 30 words with images on a computer. They were then asked to write the sentence before the word/image combo changed. 

The first group was given several practice tests later to practice retrieving it from memory. In contrast, the second group was told to study the words and images as in a real-life college study experience. 

Participants who studied the words without practice tests remembered fewer words overall than the participants who took practice tests along the way. 

Practice tests are now a part of textbooks and online texts, making it easier for you to take them after studying each chapter. Those tests can help increase your understanding of the material while studying, as well as your ability to memorize anything necessary to pass tests and write essays. 

Pro tip: Create your practice tests by writing out several questions you are unfamiliar with, as well as an answer key. Then challenge yourself by taking those tests to see how much information you have retained. Doing this will also help you see where your weaknesses lie so that you can study those areas more. Or just take the practice tests in the book.

Step Six: Learn New Technology

You probably know how to use the latest technology, and have a tablet, laptop, and even a desktop computer. You have embraced all of these gadgets as much as the younger generations have, even though you didn’t grow up with computers. Many older adults know how to send emails, text on Facebook, or even look up things on Google. 

So you have no worries about going back to school and learning new technology, right? For the most part, you have nothing to worry about. However, quite a few things have changed since you’ve last been in school. 

Today’s classrooms are very different.

Professors utilize a variety of apps to collaborate with their students, including Google Docs, in which they create templates. The students then use it to write papers or essays, making it easy for professors to grade when complete. 

Group projects are more accessible today as well, as they use Slack – a collaborating platform that allows instant messaging, emails, video calls, and other collaborative tools. If you need to chat with your professor about something, Slack offers a convenient option for both of you, if it is too difficult to get to their office during office hours. 

Virtual Reality, or VR, also found its way into the classroom for fields like medicine, where they can operate on a virtual cadaver

Last, video conferencing allows groups who otherwise cannot get together in person to work together online. 

Today’s classrooms are not like you remember, but you may be pleasantly surprised how simple it is to learn. If you know how to get on social media, send an email, or play a video, you will be fine learning the latest classroom technology.

While technology has changed, and the format may be different than what you are used to, the basic premise of school has not changed. Studying still is required to pass your classes, and lectures are still part of college classes. 

Pro tip: Take some time to learn the apps unfamiliar to you and practice using them in your spare time. If you don’t understand something, ask a professor or fellow student to help you. There is no shame in asking for help, especially about an app. You will need to know how to use it to be able to get through school. 

Step Seven: Take Good Notes

All of the previous steps will not matter if you don’t take good notes in class, because lectures and homework make it onto every single test. Also, writing down important points can create better memory retention later when you need it while studying or taking exams. 

The best way to take good notes includes the following points:

Do your homework before coming to class.

Read the material and do the practice exercises. If you come to class with some prior knowledge of the content, you will know what points of the lecture to write down, and you can focus on the lecture with some familiarity. 

1. Create some organization to your notes.

Begin a new class on a new page and date it, so you can reference it later while studying. Doing this will help you find specific information easier, especially if you add a topic and subheadings to each day’s notes. 

2. Don’t try to write down every word spoken in class.

Not every word the professor speaks should be written down. And if you do, you might miss the critical points. Aim for the highlights, like in a sports reel, and you should have what you need. 

3. Create a way to relate the material to your life experiences.

If that includes mind mapping or creating graphs within your notes during class, then that is what will work for you. If you happen to think about a similar experience when the professor is making a point, write it down in the margin next to that point. You will remember that point later because you created a map from your own experiences.

4. If taking notes on paper is not your thing, take notes on a laptop.

Most colleges today encourage students to bring a computer or tablet to class to take notes on, so if you’re better with typing notes rather than using an old-fashioned pen and paper, go for it. 

5. Review your notes after class with a summary.

Take a few minutes to review your notes if you have time after class. While you’re examining, write a few sentences to summarize what was said in class. You will remember more material and have better recall for upcoming exams. 

Pro tip: Don’t stress about taking notes if you are not good at it. A lot of professors will share their notes online after class in case you missed an important point. If, however, your professor does not do that, feel free to visit them during office hours to talk about a particular class and ask for notes. 

Conclusion

If your career move requires that you go to college, following these study tips will help you adjust to school in no time. Going back to school after being out of practice for 20+ years can be a huge adjustment, but you can do it. 

Remember that you’re going to be in school with students that are more than likely the age of your kids, but that doesn’t mean you can’t learn or that you don’t have value to add. Often, older students such as yourself have wisdom and life experiences that add to class discussions and group study sessions. Don’t be afraid to speak up when you have something to say.

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