Adult learning is no walk in the park. Going back to a formal learning environment can be daunting for working professionals even if they’re top achievers in their jobs. At Georgia Tech Professional Education (GTPE), we support adult learners as they build their expertise to pursue their career goals. Our staff are adept at serving the needs of adult learners because they understand their challenges – they’re lifelong learners themselves. Here are the top tips from GTPE staff based on their personal experiences as adult learners.
Your time is valuable, so it’s essential that the program you choose is worth your while. Chris Walker, assistant director of marketing, found that deciding whether training would truly benefit him to be one of his primary concerns. He advises conducting research before committing to a program of study. ”See if the school you’re interested in will provide contacts to their graduates who can offer references,” he suggested. “It’s so important to know if you’ll get a return on investment before you make your decision.”
Brenda Sanders, graphic designer, mentioned other ways to research potential programs. “I went online to see the reviews from other students about what they learned and how they felt about the assignments and instructors,” she said. Getting recommendations from friends and colleagues is also an effective way find out if a program will be a fit for you.
Balancing work, life, and learning is always a concern for working professionals. And for Najla Lewis, marketing manager, it was no different. “One of my top challenges was managing my responsibilities – work, family, and homework,” she said. She overcame this obstacle by completing as many tasks as possible before her course started. During the course, she tried to make use of short bursts of free time to minimize her workload in the office, such as answering emails during her lunch breaks and in the evenings. Her advice to others is to prioritize learning. “Plan to make short-term adjustments to your life pattern because they will benefit you in the future,” she said.
Lindsey Laney, academic program manager, found that she needed a dedicated learning space when she worked on her second master’s degree. “I knew I needed a quiet space to work, so I transitioned our guest bedroom into an office dedicated to school,” she said. “I had a dedicated school computer, school desk, and an understanding that when the door was closed, I was working on school and couldn’t interact at that time.”
Fatimah Wirth, instructional designer, pointed out another aspect of planning ahead: reviewing the syllabus and course structure. “If you’re taking an online course, make sure to set aside enough time to watch lecture videos, complete assignments, projects, quizzes, or exams and take part in discussions,” she said. “If you’re taking face-to-face classes, allow enough time to attend classes and complete assignments or projects outside of class time. Take into account travel time and travel conditions.”
For Patrice Miles, assistant dean of business operations, prioritizing her learning also means being fully engaged during class. ”I focused on being ‘in the moment’ and avoiding distractions when I was in class,” she said. “The phone stayed in my purse!”
Laura Haynes, assistant director of operations, experienced three major life events while working on her doctorate. She got married, had a baby, and suffered the loss of her father. She also had a full-time university teaching position during this time. It’s no wonder she considered abandoning her studies. However, one comment gave her the will to keep going. “I shared my thoughts with one of my mentors, who was a university president. He advised that I would ‘never regret completing a Ph.D. program.’ I credit his simple remark with compelling me to persist and complete the degree,” she said.
Her recommendation to other adult learners is based on her mother’s advice to focus on the manageable tasks at hand and take one day at a time. “Take bite-sized morsels of study digested daily to avoid choking on the potentially overwhelming number of assignments required to complete each course,” she said. “I highly recommend this approach, without which I may have become overwhelmed and disengaged.”
Georgia Tech is known for its rigor and the strength of it STEM programs. This reputation can lead working professionals in non-technical fields to wonder is they are able to succeed in our programs. Najla Lewis, marketing manager, found herself questioning if she would be able to manage the rigor of a course at GTPE and whether she would be a fit for a project management program with her non-technical background. “Even though many of our learners are from technical fields, there are also learning opportunities for people in non-technical fields,” she discovered. “I found that the project management certificate program had a good mix of adult learners from all industries, career levels, and disciplines. I fit in well and was able to lend my individual talents to the group activities and discussions.” Her advice to others is to believe in themselves.
Chris Walker, assistant director of marketing, considers taking time off work for professional education to be a key challenge. Being out of the office to take a course means that the work piles up while you’re away. Rather than focusing on the consequences of missing work, Walker suggests keeping your long-term goals in mind. “Try to focus on the value of the long-term benefits of training versus the short-term inconvenience of taking time off work and having to play catch up,” he suggested.
Technology plays a major part in our lives, so make sure it works to your advantage when you’re learning. Edith Greenwood, producer of interactive instructional media, raised the issue of technical needs. “Take care of any technical requirements related to the class before it starts,” she said. “Trust me, this will make assignment completion less frustrating.”
Lindsey Laney, academic program manager, pointed out the importance of contingency plans related to technology. “I planned for ‘what if’ scenarios such as what if the Internet goes down? What if my computer stops working? Are my documents saved on a cloud so I can access them from any computer?”
From online programs to traditional face-to-face classes, today’s adult learners have many options to choose from when it comes to professional education. Each delivery method has its advantages. Online learning offers optimal flexibility and the opportunity for online collaboration with peers outside your area. Traditional classes provide the face-to-face contact with your instructor and classmates. Hybrid programs offer a combination of online and face-to-face learning.
Brenda Sanders, graphic designer, suggests considering which option offers you the best chance of success before you choose a program. “Figure out which classes work best for your lifestyle and for the way you learn,” she said. Some people need to be in a classroom, but more and more people are turning to online learning.”
Jay Boudreaux, course management coordinator, noted that adult learners need to be patient with their learning. “Ask questions when you need help with understanding content,” he said.
Whether you take an online or a face-to-face class, take advantage of the opporutnities to interact with instructors and classmates to enhance your learning. Fatimah Wirth, instructional designer, suggested, ”Be comfortable with seeking help by asking questions in a face-to-face class or in discussions if you’re in an online class. Be sure to attend office hours, face-to-face or online, to seek clarification or answers to questions you may have.”
Having taken mainly traditional, face-to-face classes, Bobby Strickland, graphic designer, found he needed to adjust to online learning. “I learn better in a classroom, so learning online was a challenge. I needed to repeat sessions to make sure I understood the content,” he said. “Taking written notes helped me retain the online content and made it feel more like a classroom. I tried to implement the content into my work projects as soon as possible so that I had a better chance at retaining it.”
Strickland’s advice to other adult learners new to online learning is not to be hard on themselves. “Be patient with yourself. If it’s been a while since you were in a learning environment, know that the pace has escalated,“ he said.
The cost of professional education is often a concern for working adults. When Najla Lewis, marketing manager, decided to take the project management certificate program at GTPE, she explored the financial options available to her. GTPE, along with many employers, is generous when it comes to contributing to employees’ professional education, so always check with your employer if funding is available to you. Lewis also took advantage of a discount by committing to the entire certificate program rather than taking only some individual courses. “I also spaced courses out over two fiscal years so that I could take advantage of the educational support from my employer,” she said.
Massive open online courses or MOOCS are growing in popularity. Offered by the world’s top universities, they are free to everyone from anywhere. MOOCs are a convenient, affordable way to keep learning. They’re also a useful, low-risk way to test the waters before you decide to invest in professional education on a specific topic or to ease back into formal learning if you’ve had a long break from it.
Balancing work, life, and family while pursuing professional education can be a challenge, but you can overcome it. And the long-term benefits far outweigh the short-term inconveniences.
“Professional education allows me to be more effective and relevant in my role, and to set an example for my team about the importance of education for a lifetime,” said Patrice Miles, assistant dean of business operations. “I also find the networking with others in the program to be so valuable as we continue the learning outside of the classroom.”
You’ll never regret deepening your knowledge, sharpening your skills, and and building a professional network. Ongoing professional education makes it possible.