Top Tips for Adult Learners

By gemmacreagh - Last update

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Although there is not much in the way of scientific evidence for the idea, many people believe that learning becomes more difficult with age. It might be just a case of adults having to retain more additional information about their career and familial responsibilities, or maybe young minds really are more effective at soaking up information; either way, it makes good sense to take a structured approach to your learning activities.  The following techniques are broken into the four key areas of learning activity designed to help adult learners: note-taking in the classroom; essay composition; standard study & revision during the year; and finally (oh joy!), preparing for the exams.

Adult Learners


Well-written and easy-to-read notes will ensure that you don’t spend the lead up to exam time poring over your illegible scrawling with a magnifying glass. Good note taking thus saves an invaluable amount of time and effort in the long run. Here are a few tips to take on board:

  1. Use a large loose-leaf binder, writing only on one side of each page. Reading notes that are written on both sides is awkward and time-consuming.
  2. Go to classes five minutes early and review the notes from the previous class.
  3. If you miss a class, make sure to catch up – try and get the notes of a classmate.
  4. Sit close to the top, you will see better and are less likely to be distracted.
  5. Keep your notes marked and dated, this will help you when you need to refer back to them.
  6. There is no need to take down everything that is said (unless directed otherwise). Focus on the main themes and ideas.
  7. Listen to what the teacher says before writing. Notes are not very useful if you do not understand the context.
  8. Take everything down in a format that will make sense to you later. No two notebooks will ever look the same; everyone has their own style that works for them.
  9. If the lecturer/teacher is going too fast, capture fragments. You can bulk it out later.
  10. Typically, the last five or ten minutes of a class contains a lot of information, so stay awake!
  11. After class, review your notes and add any new information or ideas you may have and make any necessary corrections. Highlight the key ideas and themes.


Essay Writing

No matter what the topic, there are certain basic rules and guidelines that go into a good essay.

  1. Before writing anything, think carefully about what you are being asked to write about. Is it a general overview for example, or are you being asked about a particular topic? Make a note of your answer and bear it in mind when following the next steps.
  2. Research your essay. Find and make a note of the facts/background information/definitions that will support your argument.
  3. Formulate the structure of your essay. It needs to have an eye-catching introduction, which introduces readers to the topic you are tackling and sets out what you intend to prove. Plan the main body with points that will support your thesis (you may also refer to counter-arguments; especially if the question asked you to ‘discuss’ a topic), and a conclusion that will summarise your argument in a concise and convincing style.
  4. Write clear and simple sentences to express your meaning. Do not use a long, complicated word where a simple one will do.
  5. Do not waffle or wander from the subject matter. Always ensure that what you are writing is relevant to your topic.
  6. Always re-read your essay a number of times, as there will inevitably be spelling or grammatical mistakes. You may also think of a better phrase or argument to make.

Study & Revision

Good study habits will help you to easily recall meanings and contexts, and negate the need to frantically cram, come exam time.


  1. Do all the required reading, and take note of the important points and themes.
  2. Make a weekly timetable, and stick to it!
  3. Decide how important tasks are, and then allocate them appropriate time periods (e.g. if a subject area is worth 50 percent of your final grade, it warrants half of your attention).
  4. Study in a quiet space with little distractions around you; if this is impossible at home search your area for a local library
  5. Everyone has different attention spans. There’s little merit to be gained in sitting staring at a page for hours on end if your mind is busy planning your weekend; take breaks.
  6. Just reading and writing notes is of limited value. Use additional techniques such as the following to improve your study effectiveness and efficiency:
  7. Study Cards: Creating a card index under the major headings for each subject is a good of way storing information that is easily referred to in the future. Each card should have a simple bullet point list of the main issues.
  8. Study Groups: Regular study with classmates not only lessens the workload by sharing study topics, but can also make study a little more fun.


SQ3R: Survey Question Read Recall Review

This is one of the best-known and time-efficient ways to read, understand and be able to recall important texts. Carry out the following steps in order:

  • Survey: Skim through the text, examining its structure (headings, summaries, etc) and try to identify three to six major ideas. Time – A couple of minutes
  • Question: Ask yourself what the chapter is about, and make a note of the questions each of the chapter’s sections will answer. Time – About 30 seconds
  • Read: Read the text carefully. Try and find the answers to the questions that were formed in the previous stage. Time – It is important that this is done at a pace that allows you to concentrate fully. So the time spent obviously depends upon your reading speed and the text size.
  • Recall: In your own words, write down the key hierarchical (in order of importance) points of the section. We remember our own words better than any others, so it is vital that you don’t just copy phrases from the text. Time – A couple of minutes
  • Review: Unlike the previous steps, this is an ongoing process. Test yourself regularly to see if you can recall the important points of a chapter. For those that you fail to remember reread your notes and study cards. Time – Less than five minutes, but undertaken regularly during the year.

Exam Time

Feeling stress at exam time is completely natural, and even necessary in terms of providing the adrenaline for the challenge ahead. What can be done, however, if the previous and following points are adhered to, is to keep stress to a level that does not interfere with your mental and physical wellbeing.

  1. Look over past exam papers in preparation. While it isn’t a good idea to attempt to guess what will come up, it is helpful in that you can familiarise yourself with the look of the paper, the sections and the overall layout.
  2. Sleep well and eat properly. Staying up until five in the morning the night before won’t do you any favours when it comes to concentrating for hours in an exam hall.
  3. On the day, write clearly and distinctly.
  4. Take five or ten minutes to read over the exam paper, decide what questions you know best.
  5. Make sure to know what the question is asking. Do not immediately regurgitate an answer just because you spot a familiar word.
  6. Do the easier questions first; this will boost your confidence.
  7. Write down any relevant equations/quotes etc straight away, this will take the pressure off your memory and help you to structure your answers around them.
  8. Show your work where possible – steps leading to the answers can be just as important.
  9. Answer all questions; you can only get marks for what you’ve written. Remember if you have to answer four questions carrying equal marks and you only attempt three, your paper will only be marked out of 75%.
  10. Don’t worry about how much/little you are writing. Some people will write forests of waffle; while others find it easy to get their main points into a concise format…everyone is different.
  11. If you’re out of time, quickly jot down the main points of your answer.

And there you have it! Follow these guidelines and you are sure to graduate with flying colours. All that remains to do now is to find the right course for you amongst the hundreds listed online at


Gemma is a nomadic writer, filmmaker, & journalist.
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