Today, the demographics of college classrooms look much different than they did twenty years ago. College isn’t just for recent high school graduates, but for any individuals who want to extend their learning, earn a promotion, or finish a degree started many years ago. As more “older” students, meaning those in their 30’s through 50’s, go back to school, it is important they have particular survival skills. Those survival skills apply to all students, but for older students there are some special considerations and some special skills needed. These students need special talents in the areas of time management and technology. In addition, older students should be willing to use their life experiences to get ahead in college classwork.
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Every student that attends college should be an efficient time manager, but for the older student this is especially important. Typically, older students have more demands on their time. First, many of them are employed. This means they have to be flexible in the time and place they can attend class. Most colleges have online courses available and that means the older student can set his own time and place to attend class. However, many courses can be completed only by attending classes on campus. These are usually evening or Saturday classes. Some older students may think at first that taking a night class or a weekend class will be no hassle. That is usually not true. Working hard at a job all day leaves the mind and body tired. Even the most stimulating class wears a person down after three hours on a Monday night. Because older students also have children at home to tend, going to class becomes more of a challenge. Sickness, ballgames, parent conferences, help with homework – these are demands placed on all parents. For the students who have returned to college, they can seem overwhelming. Before older students return to college, they should have an understanding with their spouse and family members that they will require time to attend class and time to study without interruption. This essential requirement has to be accepted and honored by the family, or older students find themselves trying to cook supper while writing a term paper. For all students, procrastinating is a bad habit. For older students, it can be fatal to their college career. Older students must plan carefully for the time and effort it will take to complete even one evening or online class a semester. Without that commitment to carefully manage their time, older students are doomed.
One of the best ways to manage time efficiently is to make use of technology. For older students this can either be a skill or a challenge. Almost all individuals are computer literate, but the degree of skill varies. In the case of older students, most are familiar with computers as their at-home surfing machines. Most are adequate at email. However, unless they have jobs that require more specialized knowledge, many older students are clueless about the great tool they have sitting on their desks at home. These students need to brush up on the many programs available through Microsoft Office. Whether they have a Mac or a PC, older students should use Word as their primary word processing program. They should learn all of its attributes. Many older students think college will be like their high school days when pen and pencil essays were good enough. That’s not true in college courses today. Almost all instructors will require typed papers and many will expect students to be able to put together Powerpoint presentations, brochures, and other special projects that require internet and graphics. Additionally, older students should purchase flash drives and learn to use them. Being able to scan printed material is also a helpful skill. Attaching documents to email and using online resources like Blackboard are essential skills. The traditional college students who are 18 to 22 years old grew up with computers. Older students may need to get technology tools in order before they commit to college courses.
Finally, while time management and technology expertise are crucial areas for the older student to cultivate, they already have life experiences which can be extremely useful in their quest for college success. One of the most prized skills in students is their ability to think outside the box or to make relevant connections to the curriculum of college courses. The 18 to 22 year old students have limited experiences to draw upon. However, older students have a wealth of experiences including family, jobs, military service, travel, debt, failure, good fortune, success, and hundreds of others. These life experiences can enrich their classroom discussions. They can form the basis of the essays that instructors value most. Without life experiences to draw upon, younger students are usually stuck with other people’s interpretations of events or literature that they look up in textbooks or on the internet. Older students can dig into their experiences to add that special touch to their interpretations that make them honest and realistic. The skill required in this area is two-fold. First, older students have to be willing to share from their treasure trove of experience. Secondly, they must know what is and is not appropriate to share. That takes experience of its own. No one likes an older student in a class that monopolizes the discussion or is a know-it-all, not even the instructor. Sharing their experiences is important, but telling too much can be detrimental for older students. They have to be able to strike a balance.
More and more students in their “middle age” are making it in college classrooms every day. Their success in those courses depends upon their ability to manage time, to use technology tools, and to share their life experiences. If these special survival skills are present, then older students will soon be marching across the stage with their diplomas in hand.