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How to Learn Anything, At Any Age

Dawn Williams | Sep 7, 2011, 5:04 p.m.
Adults over 50 can master any new skill or body of knowledge, often faster than their younger counterparts, by setting specific goals and developing the personal learning strategies that are most effective. James Bossert

As my 50s loomed, I began thinking about the rapid passage of time, and all the things I still wanted to cram into the second half of life. One particular goal begged to be tackled: earning my amateur radio license from the FCC.

Cracking the books in preparation for that first licensing exam initially sent me into a panic. Ideas - the big picture stuff - had always been my strength. This was hard science, something I had happily left behind with the completion of high school biology. What did I know about circuits and sound waves? More than once, I felt the challenge was beyond my ability to master.

I didn't give up. For eight weeks, I used every resource available to help me understand and remember these new concepts, celebrating even the smallest signs of progress, and learning from mistakes. Two months later, the FCC issued my call sign: KC9LQS. I not only had earned the coveted radio license; I also had proven that if I set my mind to it, I can learn anything.

The irony of that experience is that, like all of us, I'd never actually stopped learning. I simply switched from formal education to a hands-on, goal-oriented form of learning. Every new encounter, every stage of life, and often just the acts required to successfully move through a given day, are all learning experiences. Every time we face a unique set of circumstances and apply thought and new behaviors to finding a solution, we are learning.

The mechanisms are in place, but the challenge lies in applying the best strategies toward understanding and absorbing new information when we decide to make later life learning a major focus. As school-age children, we learned in a teacher-centered environment. Teachers lectured; we passively received the information. Learning was accomplished if we could later produce the right answers on standardized tests. This teaching paradigm is called pedagogy.

As older adults, learning is most successful when it is approached experientially, the way we've learned new things since leaving school and making our way in the world. We learn by doing, by gathering and synthesizing data, determining how it fits into the context of what we already know and how to apply it to real-life situations. Learning is accomplished not so much when we can spew out answers to questions, but when we can generate our own questions and find ways to answer them using the new skills we've acquired. This approach is called andragogy. It is learner-centered, applicable, and dependent more on the synthesis of new information rather than memorizing it by rote.

You already have the skills necessary to learn anything at any age. Whether you're taking a class or engaging in self-study, the following tips will help you marshal your resources and master any subject.

Know Your Learning Style

When you decide to tackle a new topic, is the library your first stop for books? Do you attend lectures or ask someone to explain it to you? Or do you jump right in and learn by doing? These acts represent specific learning styles, and while we use all of them to some extend, often one or more of them makes new material easier to learn. Educator Melissa Kelly writes that learning is more efficient when the process is adapted to our individual learning styles.

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