If you’re going back to college after spending time on your career or family, you may be concerned about how you’ll adjust to being back in school. In addition to having to get used to technological advancements, like online courses, older adults may notice that the way they learn is different from the way it was when they were younger.
This does not mean that older adults have a diminished ability to learn, just that changes in the brain can impact adult learning capabilities, making older students more suited for different majors and styles of learning. If you’re an older student starting or completing your college education, don’t assume your skills, interests and abilities will be the same now as they were when you were a younger student. Paying attention to your current skills, as well as incorporating what you’ve learned in your career and through life experiences, can be a valuable asset to your college education.
A recent article in The New York Times reports that neuroscientists have been analyzing how brains age and the impact these changes can have on adult learning. Researchers have learned that as the average brain approaches middle age, defined as age 40-60, it becomes better at analyzing the central idea of an issue. Adult learners may find they have an easier time recognizing patterns, analyzing situations and finding solutions to problems presented to them.
What does this mean for adult learners going back to college? Focusing on a major that allows you to study theory and critical analysis, rather than memorizing key facts and dates, may be a better choice. The article cites a professor emeritus at Columbia Teachers college, Dr. Jack Mezirow, who believes adult learners perform best when given a “disorienting dilemma,” or an issue that allows them to critically reflect on their beliefs and assumptions. Dr. Mezirow states, “As adults we have all those brain pathways built up, and we need to look at our insights critically…. This is the best way for adults to learn. And if we do it, we can remain sharp.”
Another educator, Dr. Kathleen Taylor, who teaches at St. Mary’s College of California, also believes that adult learners need to challenge their assumptions. She states, “The brain is plastic and continues to change, not in getting bigger but allowing for greater complexity and deeper understanding.” While she acknowledges that learning new facts is essential for adult learners, she believes, “we need to move beyond that and challenge our perception of the world…. And if you learn something this way, when you think of it again you’ll have an overlay of complexity you didn’t have before – and help your brain keep developing as well.”
The article also offers tips on how to improve brain functioning and keep it sharp. To improve memory, a common concern for older students going back to college, it offers this helpful tip: If you can’t quite remember something, and its on the tip of your tongue, run through the letters of the alphabet in your head. Studies have shown that such memory lapses increase with age because of weakening neural connections, and that thinking of words that sound like the one you’re looking for can often be the key to remembering it.
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