The importance of lifelong learning

As industries and the nature of work continue to evolve, career trajectories are becoming more dynamic and less predictable. Dr. Kris Rabberman, Assistant Vice Dean and Director of Academic Affairs for Professional and Liberal Education in the School of Arts and Sciences at Penn, says lifelong learning is now seen as essential for individuals, organizations, and nations to stay competitive. "There is a growing sense now that people will need to have access to education throughout their lives, not just for one or two predetermined periods,” she observes.

Amidst the economic uncertainty, it becomes all the more empowering to take ownership of your professional and personal development journey by making lifelong learning a priority. Maintaining a commitment to lifelong learning takes work, but you can position yourself for success in your self-guided studies. Start by taking stock of your motivations for learning. There are many professional and personal benefits that lifelong learning has to offer. Think about which ones resonate most for you now, and return to this question regularly since our motivations for learning often evolve over time. Next, identify and plan for the barriers that could get in the way of your lifelong learning goals. Lastly, seek out strategies from skilled lifelong learners you admire. Teachers in lifelong learning programs can offer excellent advice since they can share strategies that have worked for their students and themselves.

What are the benefits of lifelong learning?

For most students who decide to further their education, the primary motivation is professional. “Typically, adult students are looking to advance in their current place of employment or to change their career,” says Dr. Ursula Bechert, Penn’s Director of Graduate Programs, College of Liberal and Professional Studies. Engaging in lifelong learning not only helps you stay vital and competitive in the labor market, it builds your professional network as well, Ursula notes. Due to the professional goals that students bring to their continuing education, she says, Penn works closely with employers “right from the beginning” when designing academic programs to ensure alignment with the real-world needs of industry. If your lifelong learning goals include specific career aspirations, consider complementing your studies with an internship or apprenticeship. Ursula says these are “valuable forms of lifelong learning as well, and are excellent ways to learn about the culture of a company.”

Professional success is just one of the many benefits of lifelong learning. Others include building confidence through mastery, staying intellectually stimulated, and discovering new passions and perhaps your life purpose. Additionally, through the process of learning, you develop life skills, such as time management, organization, and discipline, and enhance your skills as a reader, writer, and critical thinker. These are some of the most commonly cited benefits of lifelong learning, but each of us has our own set of motivations for wanting to be a lifelong learner. The more you understand what you want to get out of your lifelong learning practice, the more likely you are to stick with it.

What are the barriers to lifelong learning?

The same technological advances that have made lifelong learning so crucial have also made it more readily available. People can engage in lifelong learning whenever, wherever, and seemingly however they choose. Chances are, for any skill you want to learn, there is an article or video tutorial online that can help. And of course, there are advanced online learning platforms such as Penn LPS Online, which offers Ivy League courses, certificates, and a bachelor’s degree.

Despite all of the new ways to access lifelong learning opportunities, there are still some barriers that can get in the way. High-quality educational programs require an investment of time and money. There are also subtler, less tangible barriers to overcome. The impetus to engage in lifelong learning has to come from within. If you don’t feel an urgent need to up-skill or re-skill for work, and you are not already in the habit of learning, it can be hard to find the motivation to pursue academics. Another obstacle that many people face is the question of how to approach lifelong learning and where to start. Because lifelong learning is self-directed, by definition, it is entirely up to you to decide what you are going to learn, when, and how. The infinite number of subjects and opportunities to explore them can be daunting.

How do you become a lifelong learner? Where do you start?

For those interested in lifelong learning for career applications, a good place to start is with informational interviews. Kris recommends “identifying people who are in some position of responsibility or authority in the areas that interest you” and asking them if they would be willing to do an informational interview. “It’s a great way to learn about what they do and what kind of education or training would be important for you to prepare to do similar work,” Kris says. She notes that a great informational interview can sometimes lead to an ongoing mentor-mentee relationship. You can also seek out pro-bono mentorship programs in your area by searching online.

“Whether your goals as a lifelong learner are professional, personal, or both, you have to be really passionate and curious about the topic,” Ursula says. Kris agrees, and adds that identifying the topics that excite you requires self-reflection. “Sometimes life moves so quickly that you get in a mental space where you are doing the same thing by rote over and over,” Kris says. She recommends taking some time to “think about and write down what at work, or in your life, or in the world around you is grabbing your attention, and what questions you have.” This exercise can help you identify what you want to learn. From there, you can then set specific goals for how, and when, you plan to accomplish that learning.

Dr. Christopher Pastore, who directs Penn’s Master of Liberal Arts and Master of Philosophy in Liberal Arts programs, also notes that reflection and intentionality are key for self-guided study. “I encourage people to think about why they want to take a specific course—or even why you want to watch a certain documentary or read a book. That ‘why’ can be as simple as, ‘I just want to know more about this subject,’ or, ‘I want something that has no relationship to what I do all day from 9 to 5,’” Chris says. But, to get more out of lifelong learning, look at the educational content you are selecting and see what topics recur. If you are interested in several different topics, how do they relate? Another thought experiment Chris recommends: “Imagine that you are going to a holiday dinner and your extended family members are asking you about what you’re studying. Those exchanges can sometimes give you a lot of clarity.”

Lifelong learners inspire

Every year, Penn’s Vice Dean for Professional and Liberal Education, Nora Lewis, addresses the graduating class of Penn’s Liberal and Professional Studies (LPS) programs. She calls it one of the greatest joys of her job. “All of us in the Penn community are so inspired by the ambition, determination, and love of learning that our LPS students exemplify. They take time out from the rest of their lives and jobs with a noble mission to better their own lives and that of others,” she says. Perhaps the greatest benefit of lifelong learning is the ability to apply what you learn to help people and to inspire your friends, family members, neighbors, and colleagues to do the same. “As Benjamin Franklin said, the doors of wisdom are never shut,” Nora says. “A prosperous life is one in which we never cease to inquire, create, and discover—and never stop using what we learn to evolve as individuals and transform the world around us.”

Penn LPS Online offers Ivy League courses, certificates, and a degree, all of which are ideal for lifelong learners with busy lives and big ambitions. For more on why lifelong learning is important given the dramatic technological, societal, and economic shifts reshaping our world, see "Penn LPS Online students on how to balance school, work, and family" and "The online option: College for adults who work."

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