Rebuilding Basic Skills When You Return to School

Emma Cunningham always regretted not getting a post-secondary education. Instead of college or university, she went right into the workforce after high school. Throughout adulthood -- a job, marriage and motherhood -- she never lost the dream of getting her degree.

A few years ago, burnt out from her job and looking for something new, she decided it was time to start over. Her son was old enough to take on some added responsibility around the house and she was ready for a change. She's now in her final year of earning an undergraduate degree in honors anthropology and women's studies.

It hasn't been easy. Cunningham struggled to afford school. She had to learn to be a student again after so many years out of practice. However, she says it's all been worth it.

Cunningham isn't alone in her quest to continue her education well into adulthood. Many adults in the United States return to school later in life.

But how can an adult prepare to return to the world of reading, writing and 'rithmetic? For Cunningham, the biggest learning challenge was brushing up on her reading and writing skills.

Educators say she's not alone. Adult learners are often nervous about maintaining their basic academic skills when they return to school. Many education programs assume students are familiar with the basics. But if you've been out of school for a while, your reading and math skills could be a little rusty. That's why rebuilding basic academic skills can be an essential part of preparing to return to school.

A good first step, according to Cunningham, is getting the materials you'll need. This might require a trip to the bookstore.

"Having a good dictionary, thesaurus and a reference book...has been essential," she says.

Cunningham also suggests putting aside any fears about seeking help and asking questions. She's had to relearn such basic classroom skills as speaking up for herself when she has questions or comments.

"One of the biggest academic skills that I've had to brush up on has been to ask questions -- even the so-called 'dumb' questions," Cunningham says. "I've learned more that way than from any reading or writing that I've done. Getting feedback is the best learning tool there is."

Augustine Barón teaches in a department of psychology at a university with many older students. He agrees that anxiety over having lost skills like math and reading is typical among adults returning to school -- but there are remedies, many of them available at your new school's campus.

"Many adult learners worry that their writing or math skills won't be up to par," Barón says. "Students should tap into learning skills services as early as possible. Many universities have a writing center or courses to assist students."

Other schools offer "first-year" courses and orientation programs created specifically for adult students, says Jane E. Hudak. She's the associate dean at a college. In fact, she suggests that adult learners seek out these sorts of features when they're researching potential schools.

"Adult students should look for schools that are 'adult-student' friendly, with convenient class times, using pedagogy appropriate for adult learners, evening office hours, etcetera," Hudak says. "They should feel welcomed by the institution." Also, it helps to tap into organizations and resources that are aimed at helping adult learners.

Cunningham, for example, found a group at her university called Adult Learners, Part-time Students. As its name suggests, the group provides support and services for adult and part-time learners.

These kinds of organizations are becoming more common, says Cunningham, and "are a great resource for people wanting to come back to school."

The admissions office or counseling office can help you determine which adult learning resources a school offers. Many post-secondary institutions include this information on their websites. Other students can also point you in the direction of the assistance you might need.

There are a number of resources students can use outside of campus as well. Books can be a huge help, Cunningham says. She recommends scouring second-hand bookstores and garage sales for discarded textbooks, which can help students reacquaint themselves with the world of academic reading, and allow them to refresh skills in reading, math and other subjects.

Barón says the Internet has plenty of material, such as assessments and tutorials on algebra, statistics and writing. There are also online writing centers on the Internet. These allow students to submit writing samples to an online tutor for feedback. For students nervous about their writing, this can be a good way to get some helpful feedback in a relaxed situation. Having others comment on your writing is an excellent way to improve without the pressure of worrying about grades.

Andy Edelman is a professor of education. He agrees the Internet can provide nearly limitless help for mature students.

"There are tremendous new and exciting Internet-based sites that can offer incredible opportunities for learning and growth," Edelman says. "Virtually any subject can be reviewed and brushed up on by a motivated learner. In fact, many online universities offer vast numbers of tutorial programs and library research tools designed to help returning adults meet with academic success."

Sometimes these students have to do some remedial coursework to catch up on their skills, Edelman says. But this isn't uncommon, and students shouldn't feel discouraged.

"If a learner must take remedial coursework, the learner should look at this as an opportunity to relearn past skills for achievement rather than a punishment for lack of proficiency," he says. "In nearly all cases, students are then able to meet with success in the regular college classroom."