Tips for the end-of-life learner

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Maybe you are pursuing higher education at age 50. Or you start with a new company and a new job description, at age 60. Or you are a 70 year old man who finds that your job is constantly changing expectations when it comes to learning new technologies.

Here are some tips based on the science of learning and memory:

  1. Take the time to learn. It may seem obvious that we cannot learn without making learning a priority. After all, learning takes focus and effort. But it can be easy to pick up bad habits: reviewing your notes at the last minute or switching between social media and the app you need to learn how to use. These pitfalls can be particularly likely to arise when we need to balance learning goals with family and work responsibilities; often we approach our learning goals at the end of a long day, with little energy to devote to them.

    To avoid these pitfalls, set aside time each day, ideally when you are feeling your best, to tackle the material you hope to understand better. During this time, reduce distractions: Find a quiet place; turn off the television or radio; if you are learning on the computer, close all other applications and browser tabs. If you notice that your mind is wandering, take a moment and a few deep breaths, then bring your attention back to the information you are trying to learn.

  2. As much as possible, be the director of your own learning. Often times, we strive to learn information because someone, the instructor of a course we are taking or our boss, tells us we need to learn it. Usually this is the person who also sets the timetable for our learning; there is a fixed review date or the next recording at which we are supposed to understand the information.

    But learning is most effective when we feel in control, and this can be especially true as we age. Seek to control what you can about your learning environment: when, where, and how you choose to review the material. Look at the big picture: why do you want to learn the information, beyond someone telling you you have to learn it. Imagine when you would actually use the information. Think about what aspects of your job or daily life might get easier, or what career opportunities might open up for you once you understand the material. Set your own goals and timelines for learning the material.

  3. Watch a training video. In our research, we found that although end-of-life learners often report that they prefer reading a textbook to learn new technologies, watching a video may be more effective for solid learning. In addition to reading the online manual, find a video that introduces you to the different functions and uses of a new software package or hardware. More generally, it is important to review information in several formats, including a visual format.
  4. Do not stress on the learning platforms. The learning process will always include trays. At some point, we are all focusing and straining, and yet our understanding does not seem to be advancing. When you reach these plateaus, it can be helpful to think about how you can vary your learning. Is there someone to talk to about the hardware? Is there a video you can watch that shows the key features you’re trying to figure out? Is there a new way of trying to apply the material, in order to better understand it?

    Try to stay calm during the plateau you have reached or during an occasion when you cannot retrieve information when you need it. High stress levels are harmful to the learning process and can also prevent you from recalling information at the right time. If you feel your stress levels are on the rise, consider temporarily straying from your learning goals to make stress reduction your goal: going for a walk, listening to music, having a cup of tea with a coworker. Return to your learning goals after feeling your stress level decrease.

  5. Apply your knowledge. Generating content yourself is an effective way to consolidate your learning. The “test effect” shows that asking questions about the material leads to better learning than just rereading the material (Roediger & Butler, 2011). After seeing how to find a purchase order in your company’s new software application, go to the application and follow the steps. Then think about how you would describe the steps to someone; if you get stuck, go back and review the material.
  6. Persevere. No one learns everything the first time. Think about how many times a child tries to tie a lace before they get it right. Approach your learning with this recognition: it will take time, focus, and effort, and in many cases you will not be successful right away. But if you persevere, you can conquer the materials you need to learn, and you can bring the information to mind when you need it.

In the New Year, we’ll dig deeper into the science behind each of these tips. For now, we hope you will give them a try and see if they can help you achieve your learning goals.

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