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Learning something new as an adult – no matter your age – can be intimidating and at times frustrating. Feelings of doubt creep in… You might think to yourself: “What if I can’t understand the material? I never was a good student – I never will be. Even when I try really hard, I still just don’t get it.”

It’s easy to let negative self-perception get in the way of your own educational growth. But at Opportunity Junction (OJ), one of the main things we teach our students is how to build the confidence needed to successfully learn new material and land sustainable employment. 

Our instructors have provided the following tips for adult learners:

1)  Ask Questions

raised hand

Nicole Hall, OJ professional skills instructor, shared that she too was once an adult learner who set out to earn her highschool diploma in her 40s, so she fully understands the intimidation factor. She said many of her students hesitate to raise their hands because they’re afraid of looking stupid.

“What I explain to my students is that the fastest way to learn is to step outside of their comfort zone and realize that a few of the people in the class probably have the same question,” Nicole said. “I also explain that once you step outside the comfort zone, it gets easier and easier to ask questions without always feeling awkward. It also opens up a pathway for others to open up and start asking their questions as well … I tell them we are always going to be new at something. The only way to speed up the process of knowing is to ask, ask, ask.” 

2) Get After-School Help


Maybe you did ask, ask, ask, but you still ended up with more questions that weren’t answered during class. Or maybe you’re still struggling. That’s ok! OJ Lead Program Manager Michelle Wade suggests simply meeting with your teacher to either gain extra guidance or to let them know what’s going on.

“Your instructor may know ways you did not think of that might help you,” Michelle said. “For instance, OJ has a tool they use to help people with dyslexia.”

3) Build Your Village


Debra Rich, Certified Nursing Assistant (CNA) instructor, encourages her class to study together. 

“Students need to make friends so they have a support system and study group to make things easier,” she said.

Nicole agreed. 

“This especially helps when students are feeling too intimidated to ask the teacher a million questions,” Nicole continued. “When in a more relaxed environment, defenses are usually down, and they are more comfortable around their peers who are also learning and questioning things.”

4) Be Kind to Yourself


“Be as kind to yourself as you would be to a kindergartener!” said Dionne Moeller, Healthcare Career Pathways (HCP) program manager. “Learning new things takes time and practice, and it's best to be as kind to yourself as you would be to a child learning new concepts. You wouldn't tell them to quit or give up, or that they couldn't learn or are not smart, so don't use that negative self-talk with yourself either.”

Carmela Buenrostro, HCP alumni career coach, offered a similar reminder, noting that we are often our own worst critics.  

“This can be something you have not done in a long time, it won't be perfect!” Carmela said. “Celebrate the wins-no matter how big or small you may think they are. By dedicating yourself to enrolling in a new program – starting school – that is a great triumph just to walk into the door.” 

5) Take Time to Rest Your Brain


Carmela also pointed out that when learning new material, it’s important to take the time for self-care and to rest your brain. 

“You may encounter new material, new schedules, new energies,” she said. “You can't continue to learn if you are exhausted mentally and physically.” 

6) Learn More About Yourself


We all learn in different ways, and part of becoming a good student is learning more about yourself. Michelle said students need to determine their own best method of learning, which could be visual, auditory, kinesthetic or simply through reading and writing things down. 

Nicole noted that anything from a textbook can usually be explained through other mediums, such as video or photos. If the dry textbook language causes confusion, Google it! There are bound to be helpful images or demonstrations available to help clarify.  

Learning more about yourself also means recognizing what hasn’t worked for you in the past, like waiting last-minute to cram for a test. It’s time to get realistic and make time for this new commitment.

“Study regularly,” said Debra. “Don't wait until a test to try to cram the knowledge into your brain. Consistent study makes for a better student.”

7) K.I.S.S. and Play!


Alana Chisholm, computer skills instructor, reminded students to Keep It Simple Silly (or K.I.S.S.) because most of the time, people overthink things.

“Keep it simple and work the problem one step at a time,” Alana said. “It is a pie. You don't need to eat the whole thing at once – you eat it one piece at a time.”

Alana also likes to incorporate play into learning – yes, even for adults! Struggling with a math problem? Break out some Legos. Need help remembering vocab? Create some colorful flashcards. 

“We were taught through play as kids,” she said. “Just because we are adults doesn't mean we don't still learn that way.”

Piggybacking on that point, Michelle said mental associations can be helpful. Remember how “Please Excuse My Dear Aunt Sally” (PEMDAS) once helped us remember the order of operations for math? (It’s easier than remembering Parenthesis, Exponents, Multiplication, Division, Addition, Subtraction – that’s for sure.) Even if you have to create your own associations, these hacks can prove useful.

8) Leave the Past in the Past


The type of student you were years ago doesn’t get to dictate what you’re capable of today. In fact, did you know that certain brain functions actually improve with age? Check out this article or this one. Many people find that their skills, patience and work ethic around education improve as they mature, making learning altogether more successful and enjoyable. 

“Just because you were unable to learn something in the past, does not mean you can not learn it now,” Michelle said. “Take yourself out of the ‘I can never learn that’ mindset.”