You can teach an old dog new tricks!

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Going back to school can be difficult for adults, but just like when we were younger, successful learning relies on the support of others

Late last year on a return flight home with the Learning Skills Unit (LSU) crew from an academic language and learning conference in Adelaide, I labored through Larry Crowne, a Hollywood film in which Tom Hanks plays a department store supervisor who loses his job and his house. While the movie develops into just another romantic Hollywood sick-fest, the terrifying dead-end that Larry finds himself at is reality for many people in our world.

As Larry takes up residence, or rather squats, on his front lawn courtesy of eviction by the bank, he takes the advice of his neighbor, Lamar, and enrolls in the local community college to get an education in the hope of getting a job. Now, as lame as this movie is, it touches on a couple of anxieties that mature age students confront when they decide to go back to study. One of these anxieties is how to make friends. In the movie, Larry forms an immediate friendship with Talia, a young free spirit who rides a Vespa and happens to be mega cute. How does a loser like Larry attract this attention?! Well, shallow script aside, he confronts the fears that many of us have and actively seeks to connect with people who are much different from him. He makes an effort to understand his classmates and makes time to "˜hang out' with them both on and off campus. It enables him to create a safety net of support so that when stress, anxiety and embarrassment come knocking, as they invariably do when we return to study, he has somewhere to turn. When I went to university for the first time as a 25 year old, I found it hard to relate to my classmates because most had only just left high school months earlier while I had not long returned from teaching in Japan for two years. The gap in lived experience was huge. But with time and effort, I unearthed a lot of commonalities between us.

Learning Matters is a monthly column aiming to provide useful thoughts on learning and education in the hope of informing the broader discussion of educational development in Vietnam. The column is written by the Learning Skills Unit at RMIT International University Vietnam. Readers' feedback and questions can be sent to

Larry also grapples with the vagaries of learning how to learn again. With no higher education experience, not just mature age learners like Larry, but all learners generally, have difficulty coming to terms with a miss-match in expectations that they and their lecturers tend to have. One of the major causes of study anxiety that we see in the LSU is brought on by essay writing. Our experience tells us that it does not matter what background or language group you come from, first year students generally get it wrong. But with support, practice and constructive feedback from peers, lecturers and places like our LSU, even the weakest writers develop into proficient essayists and go on to graduate. I can remember the first essay I ever wrote at university got me 9/20 with some very discouraging remarks attached from my lecturer. I got over it, sought support and over time I got familiar with the formula for successful essay writing and churned out a lot of great stuff.

For anyone contemplating going back to study, it is often far too easy
for them to think about why they should not. Contrary to what some might believe, mature age students are a valuable resource in any learning environment and they bring to the classroom attributes that recent high school graduates cannot possibly bring, like life and work experience, a positive work ethic and a fresh perspective. The "˜older' students we tend see in the MBA programs here at RMIT for example, while time poor, tend to be highly motivated, organized and simply driven to succeed they add so much value to the learning and teaching experience.

Currently, Vietnamese culture is readjusting itself to the idea of lifelong learning and hopefully in the near future we will see a greater number of mature age university students dropping into the LSU for advice. For the time being however, if you are playing with the idea of a return to study and are not quite sure if you have got what it takes, think seriously about it because you might just be pleasantly surprised at how ready you are.

Oh, and by the way, Larry gets the girl and graduates from college and presumably gets a job and lives happily ever after.

By Matthew Cowan
The writer is from the Learning Skills Unit, RMIT International University Vietnam

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