Being back in a classroom can help you reach your goals—if you take advantage of your older-brain skills.
Thirteen years ago, at age 56 and after more than three decades as a writer of educational materials for children, I decided to pursue an encore career as a community educator to older adults. So I entered a college graduate-level gerontology program and took my place as a student.
Naturally, after such a long absence from a university setting, I was worried: Would my older brain be able to tap into those long-lost study habits of researching, paper-writing, memorizing, and test-taking? Could I hold my own among classmates 30 years my junior? Or would stereotypical generational expectations get in the way of us accepting one another as peers?
The Older—and Wiser—Student
If you’re like me, your early student years were preoccupied mostly with getting good marks on papers and tests, pleasing your teachers, and moving on to the next grade level. The ultimate goal? Finishing school and getting that first well-paying job in the career of your choice.
But as we age, our motivations often change. As we are more independent-minded and experienced, our reasons for reentering the classroom may be mainly socially purpose-driven. Whether we enroll in an academic program, or an informal lifelong-learning class, we want to learn things just for the sake of learning, help us give back to society, or leave a legacy for those we love. Nevertheless, we often doubt whether or not we’re still up to the task of “hitting the books.”
My back-to-school experience taught me two important lessons about us older students: 1) We have a greater stockpile of knowledge from which to draw than our decades-younger selves had; and 2) We require specifically tailored learning approaches because our brains have changed.
Our Changing Brains
Beginning around age 30, our brains shrink in volume about one-half of 1% each year, our reaction times slow down, and we may find it harder to multitask, follow complicated directions, and absorb new information. That’s the not-so-good news.
But here’s the great news: As we age, we develop and improve upon certain powerful cognitive skills. For example:
We have formed trillions more connections between brain cells. The longer we have been exposed to new and different experiences, ideas, and pieces of information, and the more often we have applied that knowledge in various ways, the larger our brain’s “library” has become and the more “superhighway routes” we have created to access those volumes of information. That capacity makes it easier to eventually integrate the things we learn in class with what we already know.
Our brain hemispheres operate in greater sync. About the time that we reach age 50, a bridge of tissue known as the corpus callosum, which connects the left and right hemispheres, has fully matured, allowing us to solve problems from more perspectives. Life’s challenges no longer trigger in us black-and-white interpretations but rather an understanding and appreciation of their gray areas. We are better able to see the subtleties involved in any issue and to speculate about obstacles that might get in the way of solving a problem.
We excel in single-task performance. Provided that we’re not interrupted by people or distracted by environmental conditions, we can focus our attention longer and apply ourselves more diligently than can those with decades-younger brains that are hardwired to shift gears more often.
Our thinking abilities make us more self-sufficient. We usually require less individual supervision and guidance because our years of life have taught us many effective shortcuts and techniques for weeding out which information is relevant and which is irrelevant when doing a task or meeting a goal. In a classroom situation, this trait can put us at an advantage when taking notes and completing assignments.
A pretty impressive group of mature-brain skills, isn’t it?
An Optimal-Learning Checklist
As you consider any workshop or course, try to find one that will maximize your learning based on these important abilities. The best group setting will include:
An environment free of physical distractions (outside noise, uncomfortable seating, an extreme room temperature, etc.)
A peer relationship with an instructor who appreciates the experience and wisdom you can bring to class
A variety of stimulating (hands-on, intergenerational, etc.) activities
Flexibility in approaching and completing assignments based on your particular limitations and interests
Lessons that encourage you to make connections between the curriculum content and your life experiences
Abstract information explained through the use of anecdotes and case studies
Regular individualized feedback from your instructor and classmates
Enough time for you to review new material on a regular basis
Value placed on practical application over rote memorization
Realistically, not all of these needs will be met by one teacher in one course. Nevertheless, this list can help you decide if the class you’re considering will be a good fit for the experience you’re hoping to have. And of course, you can discuss these options with the instructor, who might be open to incorporating as many of them as possible.
Another thing to keep in mind: While you might feel a sense of comfort, familiarity, and camaraderie when you learn alongside others your age, there’s something to be said about the added excitement that can happen in an intergenerational class by being exposed to ideas and opinions that can surprise you and expand your understanding. If this option intrigues you, consider checking out classes and workshops beyond those offered in senior centers.
So, how did I fare during my back-to-the-classroom time?
In my graduate classes, I was fortunate to have been taught by gerontologists, who already understood the needs and assets of the older brain. As a result, my classroom experiences were mutual teaching ones. My younger classmates—as well as my instructors—learned from me as I did from them.
Lifelong education can be a tremendously rewarding experience. Luckily, as we age, that reward increases if we keep in mind not only our purpose for learning, but also the maximum benefits we can get from it, thanks to our amazing older-brain skills.
Jeanette Leardi is a Portland-based social gerontologist, writer, editor, and community educator who has a passion for older adult empowerment. She gives popular presentations and workshops in journaling, memoir writing, ethical will creation, brain fitness, creativity, ageism, intergenerational communication, and caregiver support to people of all ages. Learn more about her work at jeanetteleardi.com.