Congratulations! You’ve graduated. Or maybe you are just fantasizing about the day that you will have finally finished the mountain of schoolwork and will be able to say that you did, in fact, graduate. No matter your current relationship with typical classroom learning, I am here today to advocate for the benefits of being a lifelong learner.
First, we must define what we mean by “lifelong learner”. Sure, there will be things that you will be learning for the rest of your life. You might be seeking new knowledge for a variety of reasons, such as your employment, for personal reasons, or even just as a hobby itself. For example, you might learn new ways to brew your coffee in the morning, learn how to run the latest update of your phone’s software, or even just learn a new route to work. However, these are not instances that I would count as “lifelong learning”. These seem to fit more into the category of different “trainings” . They are simple skills that can be learned with little involvement and rely heavily on rote memorization. The Skinner/Taylor model suggests that this is learning with an emphasis on training, instead of true learning . To better understand, lifelong learning can be defined by three major facets: ongoing, voluntary, and self-motivated .
Let’s explore these three major facets necessary for lifelong learning and how they prove beneficial to the learning process. The first is that the learning must be ongoing . By ongoing, I mean that learning must be a constant. Learning has been shown that it cannot be truly be confined to a classroom. Moreover, we are learning every day and, in most interactions, . For many of us, we are in the midst of 16 or more years of constant, formal education . When we graduate, you might be surprised to learn that this is not the end of the road . If you’re like me, you imagine the great feeling you will have when you turn in your dissertation, thesis, capstone, or whatever culminating project you may have, and you waltz out of your professor’s office, never to pick up another dreaded, dusty journal article again. However, as I learned at the end of my undergraduate years and before my graduate years, there is an odd feeling that accompanies not sitting in a classroom after doing so for so many years. After a surprisingly short while, the itch to start learning again creeps in. I should say, for some of us it is an itch, and for some of us, it is a necessity [3,4].
Although we learned quite a bit while we were in a formal educational setting, you will have a very difficult time convincing me that I will be able to move forward in my career based on my Astronomy 101 lecture or help my company adapt to the changing world based on a historic Constitution course. This piece of lifelong learning being an ongoing process pushes us past the classroom . Ongoing learning suggests that the student will be able to engage in learning opportunities across a broad range of areas, including home, work, public spaces, and the political community . Education and learning, then, becomes a part of our occupation and a part of our daily routine [2, 3].
Next, learning must be voluntary . As I mentioned before, some of us feel an urge to continue to learn, and some of us feel the gentle nudge of necessity to get us interested in learning. No matter where you fall on the spectrum, remember that it is voluntary. You have the choice to engage in true, deep learning or to simply engage in basic rote memory . As Ben Orlin described in The Atlantic, “Memorization is a frontage road: It runs parallel to the best parts of learning, never intersecting. It's a detour around all the action, a way of knowing without learning, of answering without understanding” . Therefore, it is a voluntary choice to engage in true learning, in the place of mere memorization.
On top of this, once we have completed the bare minimum requirements by our federal government to attend school until the age of majority, all other learning is entirely voluntary . Although we may feel coerced into attending college or university in order to achieve the job we want, it is still a conscious choice that we are able to make [7 That means that you going to college is a choice on your part, in one respect or another. Voluntary learning puts the learner at the crux of the entire learning experience . You, the learner, are required to engage the material somewhat independently and decide what information you believe will be the most necessary for your future endeavors .
Finally, lifelong learning must be self-motivated . This idea is similar to the notion of voluntariness but takes it one step further. According to an Entrepreneur article, millennials and all other professionals in the workforce should seek to expand their knowledge through being a “self-starter” . While our educational system still places a heavy emphasis on structured education, this is only one aspect of formal learning . As some studies have shown, the traditional structured classroom does not necessarily benefit the deep learning process, and it seems to be teaching students that education is more of a “call-and-response” game, rather than a tool to help them build repertoires for the future . However, the idea of being self-motivated allows the student to take the driver’s seat and to own responsibility for their own education .
In the realms of employment and higher education, self-motivated learning has been shown to be a tremendous benefit. Matt Mayberry, Speaker and Maximum Performance Strategist, explains that in order to be successful at your career, you need to be able to prioritize your busy life to fit in enough time to learn some new skills . He notes that self-motivated learning is necessary in every field in order to get a competitive edge . Instead of just having the framed piece of paper intended to prove one’s education, being able to demonstrate an effective knowledge in a broad range of topics is much more impressive .
Melissa Fudor agrees with this notion, by reminding us that continuing education is necessary to relevant in most industries . She notes that getting back into the classroom is important, even if that classroom is figurative . Whether or not these are psychology related courses or a PowerPoint workshop, there has been some proven benefit to taking your learning into your own hands .
On top of all this, the field of neuropsychology agrees with the idea that lifelong learning is the best approach . Our brains are continuously developing throughout our lifetime . Although some research shows that most of our synapses are developed by middle adulthood, the maintenance and care for these connections is vital . In a very “use-it-or-lose-it” way, when we fail to engage in our learning process, we may become less familiar with it or start from scratch in some cases . Not only does it benefit our careers, but lifelong learning also supports our health brain functioning !
“Ok, ok, I’m sold”, you say, “but I’m so overwhelmed from school at the moment that I don’t even want to think about the possibility of continuing my education any further than necessary.” Well, as our science would have it, burnout is a very common issue among college and university students . We feel so incredibly overwhelmed with the list of tasks that need our attention, we simply don’t know how all of these exams, deadlines, meetings, dissertations, internships, and even social engagements are going to be met .
Even though students are likely feeling as though an escape from this never-ending to-do list would be a welcome dive into sweet monotony, we might not know what we’re asking for . Research has shown that students now more than ever are so constantly engaged that when we are not provided with constantly changing stimuli, the constant tedium can actually cause burnout . In a recent study, many recent graduates rated their employment as extremely boring, even when it was something that they had idealized doing .
It turns out, even though it seems like the main source of stress at this point in many people’s careers, education can veritably serve as a protective factor . Rather than offering methods of coping with stress in order to add another thing to your plate, education and self-directed learning can actually be a coping mechanism in-and-of-itself . The familiar nature of the learning environment can provide a reprieve from the monotony of many places of employment. Scientists also suppose that being in a learning environment encourages the student to work at the optimal stress level for learning .
Overall, it is clear that education and learning is important throughout one’s life, even after you have your degree in hand. Not only does it set a precedent for your vocational career, it also helps you stay sharp in the field and keep in touch with your learning style. Moreover, learning can even serve as a protective factor to the individual, keeping them from “boredom burnout”, as it has been called . As long as the student is engaged in the learning and not simply taking the class or lecture for the sake of the lecture, research compellingly supports the position of continuous learning.
I know it doesn’t seem like it now--but continuing your educational career well beyond the conference of your degree will likely be something you enjoy as well as a benefit to your professional career. It may feel like as soon as you have a degree, you will never want to even think about another book. Nevertheless, I implore you to continue your own education—on your own terms.