3 Tips For Going Back To School After 30

How to not make the same learning mistakes you’ve made during your twenties.

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Photo: Philippe Bout/Unsplash

The reality is that most of us were not ready for university when we attended it in our twenties. Whether it was a compulsive choice of major, wanting to leave home, or any other external factor, there were far too many things to deal with not to get distracted from the real purpose of going to university: learning.

I went to university thinking my study skills from high school were enough to keep me in the top tier, which wasn’t wrong. I remained in the top tier, but I ended up not benefiting much.

Two degrees later, I am now thinking of going back to university to study landscape architecture. Based on my experience, here are the tips I found most helpful in avoiding the same learning mistakes I made the first time.

1. Lectures are downtime, not study time

It sounds counter-intuitive, but it’s true in most cases. I used to put the majority of my focus on lecture time, but truth be told, it’s not the best time to learn.

Lectures are only effective once you’re already familiar with the material, meaning you should have heard about it or read it at least once. Lectures are much more beneficial (and enjoyable) if you’re hearing the material for the second or third time.

60 or 90 minutes are just not enough to be introduced to a concept, think about it and assimilate it all at once. Lectures are downtime and the hard work takes place outside the classroom, on your own.

Prepare for your lectures even if it just means getting familiar with the names of the concepts in your suggested/required readings. That way you can sit back during the lecture, enjoy the show, and focus on understanding, which would naturally lead you to ask better questions.

Ever wondered why the best questions came to your mind on the eve of an exam? It’s because you had enough downtime to understand concepts properly and build questions.

2. Note-taking is for Your Future Self

We don’t look back at our notes. But why?

Because we feel they are redundant. It’s not always true, but if your notes are badly taken, it can actually be the case.

The way I used to do it was to write down what the lecturer was saying, or the best parts of it, as if I was collecting quotes. But again, the purpose of a lecture isn’t that. As outlined above, you should be in downtime mode, focusing on understanding.

The notes you should be taking, if any, are one of three kinds:

  1. Concept names and brief explanations
  2. Things to look up later: author names, concepts, readings, references, historical facts
  3. Questions you have in mind

Basically, you should be writing down everything that isn’t already on the slides, isn’t on the textbook/reading, and isn’t self-evident. Which isn’t much at the end of the day!

Why? Because those are the things you will forget once you walk out of the classroom and will have no way of retrieving.

Here’s a pro-tip: Use different ways of taking note of the three things mentioned: circles for concepts, rectangles for things to look up, and questions on one of the margins of the page. The Cornell method is another good way to do it. Coded notes are much easier to go through when studying for an exam or paper.

If you stress too much about whether you should be listening or taking notes, get a recorder (or your phone) and take notes later at home while listening at it at a slightly faster pace to save time.

3. Go Off-Syllabus

Learning takes place when you take the material you’ve assimilated further than the syllabus. University is not about memorizing concepts, formulas, author names, or historical facts as much as it is about personal discovery of knowledge. The knowledge that will benefit your personal growth.

Being able to apply what you’ve learned to a new situation is like being able to build the ground floor after having set a solid foundation. The foundation itself is useless if no floors are to sit on top of it. Once the floor is built, the foundation disappears and only the rest of the building is seen.

This is what you want your learning experience to do for you.

I have emphasized the ability to ask questions in the previous two points because questions set you in a new direction, which is the building in the above metaphor.

In other words, if you find yourself going off-syllabus and getting passionate about a subtopic within the subject you’re studying, there’s no reason for you to feel bad about not having fully memorized the list of concepts in that subject yet. You are doing exactly what university was built for.

The upside of this is amazingly freeing: if you find yourself getting bogged down in a boring aspect of the subject, you can take a tangent and read a Wikipedia page, watch a documentary or try your hands at a real-life exercise.

You’ll find yourself benefiting greatly, learning a lot more, or maybe even finding the missing elements to your understanding of previously difficult concepts.

I have accumulated a lot of facts and concepts from my time at university, but going back through my lectures nowadays, I find myself regretting not having spent more time putting those concepts together to build something new.

I was too focused on trying to prove that I can regurgitate all of the information that I was given in an ordinate manner, forgetting that it was about my personal learning experience instead.

Today, with the help of these tips, I find myself benefiting much more from the same lectures I attended in the past.

For those of you readers who are just about to start university, you may not recognize some of these symptoms yet, but keep an eye out for them, you might end up enjoying your time at university!

The advice above doesn’t guarantee good grades, but rather personal benefit. Isn’t that what university is for anyway?

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A resilient human living in the drylands. I write about our relationship with the environment and I sometimes compose poems.

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