Welcome to the Mature Adult Learner

The Mature Adult Learner Pathway was created by Penny Goldsmith. Goldsmith brings a high level of knowledge, experience, and understanding to this pathway as a mature adult learner herself. She is currently working on and excelling in her second graduate degree program and brings a personal lived experience of the program’s target audience. Penny’s exercises actually reflect the challenges she experienced reentering a higher education institution. A mature student for this pathway is defined as a graduate student who has been away from academic learning for a significant period of time (at least two years) although, the program will directly appeal to the older mature student over 30 years old.

Mature students return to University for a variety of reasons including; career advancement, to improve qualifications, an interest in a program, personal development, or to discover a new direction in life (Newson, McDowall, & Saunders, 2011). Further, with the ever-changing needs of the workforce there are increasing expectations of post-graduate qualifications (Devlin, 1996). The mature graduate student is diverse and this diversity includes; age, education, work experience, part-time/full time status in school and/or work (Newson, et. al., 2011). The pedagogical needs and challenges of the mature student are different than younger students (Devlin, 1996). These challenges include a number of personal and academic challenges for example; financial, accessibility, lack of time, struggles in balancing study, family, friends, and work if applicable, lack of confidence, high degree of fear of failure, and skill gap including studying, writing, and IT skills (Newson et al., 2011).

Exercise 1: You Are Not Alone! The Diversity of the Mature Adult Learner

In this exercise you will read a brief biography of three different graduate mature adult learners; Pam, Kelly, and Vicky. These stories were written by actual graduate students like you. Read through briefly the first one to two paragraphs of each graduate student, and pick the one who you feel you relate to most. Continue to read their story to learn more about their background and why they choose to come back and enroll in a graduate program. Further, you will discover some of the challenges they have encountered as a graduate student mature adult learner.

After reading one of the graduate student’s stories, you will watch a YouTube video called Mature Student Tips “Prepare to Excel”. It is approximately three and half minutes in length and you will hear from Diane Zorn, a Professor from the Faculty of Liberal Arts & Professional Studies at York University.

Finally, take the time to reflect and tell your story in your journal. Make an entry of 200-250 words. Ensure to consider why you choose to come back to, what are your goals after completion, and the challenges you are facing as a graduate student mature adult learner. In completing this exercise, it will provide you with an opportunity to reflect on your story as well as to acknowledge some of the challenges you may be facing. This exercise of examining the challenges builds on the framework for areas of personal growth, as discussed in Phase 1, that you will move towards.

Graduate Student Stories: Pam, Kelly, and Vicky Pam


My name is Pam and am 38 years old. Presently, I am enrolled in the M.Ed program at the University of Ottawa, but am looking to transfer into the M.A program and maybe even a Ph.D in the future. Over 15 years ago, I completed a B.A.Sc in Gerontology. During my undergraduate degree, I worked in the University of Guelph, Hospitality Services Department in banquets and the faculty lounge restaurant. The University had a well-known hospitality program and I found myself drawn to the department. After completing my undergraduate degree, I moved directly into a MBA in Hospitality with a focus in Organizational Behaviour.

After leaving completing my MBA, I was employed for 15 years corporately for a large quick service restaurant organization. During this time, I got married and had two children both boys. I loved my career and was well respected in the organization. Over the years I was promoted to various roles. Over the past four years, I held the role of Manager of Regional Training and teaching was a large part of the role. I love to teach and discovered I was good at it as well.

I had my second son in the summer of 2013. During maternity leave, I reflected on what my next steps would be in my career. I had a great deal of passion for the company I worked for, but felt if I could do more teaching and less travel it would be ideal. I considered for some time about returning to academics and finally I pushed myself to apply. I got in. It was a difficult decision leaving a high paying job. In my role, I had a company car, insurance, and gas were all paid. Would our family be able to financially afford losing this income as well as affording tuition?

I was nervous and excited about coming back to University and my family, especially my husband, has been a tremendous support. There were many challenges I faced coming back. As stated already, the financial was a big obstacle. Further, would I be knowledgeable enough. I had not written an academic paper in almost 15 years. The first assignment was colossal. It would determine in my mind if I was going to make it. It was returned and my confidence got better as the result was excellent.

There are still times I get stressed and have thoughts “can I do this?” Every new challenge or type of assignment some of these thoughts and feelings come back and affect my confidence. However, through courses, I met a couple other graduate students that I have grown close with. These peers are a great support. I learned I was not alone in my thoughts and feelings and we rely on each other weekly for support. We even brainstorm together on our assignments.


My name is Kelly. I am an elementary school teacher and presently I am enrolled full-time in the M.Ed program at the University of Ottawa.

Before I became a teacher, I was in the Canadian Navy where I worked as a Maritime Surface Officer. One of my jobs when I was in the Navy was as Officer in Charge of a Basic Training program. It was doing that job that I realized that I really was a teacher not a boat driver. I took a leave of absence for a year and got my Bachelor of Education in Teaching English as a Second Language.

After a year of teaching English at Brock University, I went to Teachers College to get my Junior/Intermediate qualifications and I have been teaching ever since. Since I started teaching, I have been a Special Education Teacher; I have taught Home Economics to grades 7 and 8; and I taught grade 7 Math in North Carolina for 4 years. When I returned to Canada in 2001, I was hired to teach in a small rural area about one hour south of Ottawa.

Since 2007, I teach grades 5 and 6. This is my absolute favorite age range to teach. I love that they are developing their own sense of self at this age, figuring out what their ideas and opinions are and who they want to be. But they are also still little kids and they want you to love them – which I do. Since I started at Upper Canada District School Board, I have taken my primary qualifications and my 3 part Math Specialist. Math is my absolute favorite class to teach and my goal every year is to make my entire class of students leave grade 6 enjoying Math more. I like to make it fun!

A few years ago, I was inspired by my cousin to go back to university. I had been reflecting that I would like finish my last ten years of as a principal – of a small rural school just like the one I work at. I believe I would rather be a big fish in a small pond : ). Therefore, in September I started full time to complete my Masters of Education. I am taking four courses this semester, four in the winter and will do two in the spring semester.

There have been quite a few challenges going back to school at my age (I’m 50).

As September grew closer, I found that I was having anxiety. I was afraid of stepping out of my comfort zone and into the unknown. I am a good teacher and I had gotten used to being good at something and was afraid to be “not good” at school. I was concerned I wouldn’t fit in, that I would look out of place and that everyone in all my classes would be twenty years younger than me. I was afraid of going from being the “expert” to not knowing what I was doing. I was afraid of getting lost and of taking the bus – I know it sounds crazy. I had my husband come with me one day, take the bus to the university and walk around and find each of my classes. Doing that one simple thing made me feel much more comfortable the first day of school.

Another challenge I faced was what I learned was called “the Imposter Syndrome”. I worried during September that I wasn’t good enough. Everyone else seemed smarter than me, more knowledgeable and seemed to not be struggling like I was. When I got my first assignment back and got a 70% that seemed just to underline the fact that I didn’t know what I was doing. Then I saw an advertisement from the Graduate Association offering a seminar on just the thing that I was worried about. I didn’t take the seminar, but it helped me to know that there must have been other people feeling the same inadequacy that I felt in order for them to think they needed a seminar about it. That was a turning point for me. I was smart enough. And there were people who were smarter than me but that was OK.

The technology challenge was huge. You have to understand that when I was last at school, you went to the shelves and took the journals down and photocopied the articles you wanted. Searching online was new and unknown to me. I was comfortable with Blackboard as I had used it in the past, but … research! I enrolled in a one day course at the library and acquainted myself with search engines, databases, Zotero among other library resources. It have a better understanding of the technology and do not consider it a challenge anymore.

As with teaching, maintaining a work/life balance is still a huge challenge. I only see my husband for a few minutes in the morning and for a few hours after 9:30 at night. I worry that he works much longer now because I’m not home. Some weeks I feel I don’t have time to get groceries or put the laundry away. All I seem to do is work and go to class. I found that having an agenda where I write down all my assignments for the week and a work plan for every week has helped a lot. As long as I stick to my plan, and not get too far behind, it is still manageable. Having said that, I probably put in a ten hour day five days a week and one day on the weekend. It’s a heavy load but it is manageable if I am careful. I would still like to see my husband more. : (


My name is Vicky and am completing my M.Ed at the University of Ottawa part-time. I am a 45 year old, married with two beautiful children aged 12 (son) and 18 (daughter). As a family we immigrated to Canada in 2008.

My educational background is diverse. The first time I attended University, I studied International Business. After graduation, I went to work for large corporation in the logistics field involving import/export in France. After moving to England I became interested in teaching, and went through training to qualify as an adult educator. Around the same time, I completed another Undergraduate degree in Modern Languages. For several years I was a professor at a community college where I taught French. In 2008, when I first arrived to Canada, I worked for a private French training and language school. After four years, I decided to set up my own private tutoring and language training school. We provide tutoring for children in French immersion as well as French language training to government employees. We also offer various French conversational courses to adults. The business had grown and now have eight full-time teachers.

I decided to enroll into the M.Ed program at the University of Ottawa for personal and professional reasons. Personally to learn more within my field and for personal growth. Professionally, to further evolve my language school and take the business to the next level and to better serve my students, and therefore enrolled in the M.Ed program. I believe it is critical to keep current with knowledge in education to best address the needs of my business and my clients.

Going back to university was both exciting and challenging. I had a great deal of anxiety. How would I be able to manage working full time and manage my courses part-time? Academically, would I have the academic abilities to be successful? Would I have the energy required! It has been stressful.  Working full-time managing the business and taking two courses has been a challenge. The key was organization and managing my time. Although it has been challenging, the learning has been vast and rewarding.

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Exercise 2: Stress Management & Building a Social Network

In this exercise we will examine different types of stress. In particular, the certain stresses you might encounter as a mature adult learner in a graduate program.

There are two types of stress:

  • Eustress: positive, good stress that comes from situations that are enjoyable. (e.g., winning in a game)
  • Distress: Negative, bad stress that can be harmful to the body. (e.g., doing poorly on a test)

As a mature adult learner registered in a graduate course(s) or graduate program you may have stress around course load, course work load, completing an assignment, work stress (if applicable), and most important family stress (if applicable). Stress may not always be detrimental and a certain level may be beneficial. Too much can lead to burn out. Therefore, developing strategies to cope with high levels of stress are important.

For this exercise, review your journal from Exercise 1, where you told your story as well as documented some of the challenges you may be facing. The challenges you identified may be stresses in your life. Create a stress list using the Stress Worksheet (.docx, 57 kb) (Appendix A) provided. Begin by identifying the stressor and possible physical and mental symptoms that may result. After completing the Stress List, read the document Tips to Reduce Stress Levels (.docx, 126 kb) (Appendix B). Reflect around how to cope with and prevent the distress you identified in your Stress List and complete the Stress Plan Worksheet (.docx, 68 kb) (Appendix C) where you will create your plan for coping with these stresses.

As a mature student it will be important to build a social network. In your courses you will meet a diverse group of people many who face similar challenges as you. In some courses it may be required to complete group work. Ensure to create a social network to help with stress.

In your journal, write an entry 150-250 words on your experiences in completing this exercise.

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Exercise 3: Time Management

For this exercise, begin by watching a YouTube video called Mature Student Tips “Advantage of Maturity”. It is approximately four minutes in length and you will hear from Diane Zorn, a Professor from the Faculty of Liberal Arts & Professional Studies at York University.

Time Management is important for balance. As a mature adult learner you may have a family with children, work full-time or part-time, as well as balancing your academic workload. It can be a challenge at times and certain aspects in your life may suffer as a result.

The Wheel of Life Balance exercise is useful to visualize the balance in your life. Take the time to complete exercise on your life. Ensure to some quality time to really reflect during this exercise. Around the wheel there are eight areas. Each area represents different aspects of your life. First determine the eight aspects that reflect your life. Some examples include; family, friends, career, education, fun/recreation, significant other, money, personal growth, spirituality, and health. Fill in on your Wheel of Life Balance worksheet (.pdf, 57 kb) (Appendix E) or the Accessible Alternative Wheel of Life Balance Worksheet (.docx, 47 kb) the eight areas of your life you have chosen from the list above. Next, rate each area on a scale from zero low to 10 high on how much time is spent in each area. If the center of the wheel is zero and the outer is 10, mark along the spoke your rating for each area. Next, connect the dots and draw a circle inside the wheel to map your Wheel of Life Balance. Take the time to reflect on your results. What areas are you neglecting? What areas do you want to focus on first? How will you achieve greater balance in the areas you would like to improve? Create a journal entry reflecting your wheel and discuss areas of your wheel you would like to work on and what your plan is. Ensure to date your wheel as you may like to revisit this once or twice a year to track changes.

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Exercise 4: The Writing Process

In almost all courses you will be required to write a paper or a report. It may have been some time since you have written an academic paper. There are many resources available to you including the Academic Writing Help Centre on Campus.

For this exercise, read the following documents made available on the University of Ottawa website from the SASS Student Academic Success Service: The Writing Process. Additionally, a Quick Guide to APA Referencing is provided as a tool to use.

Read the documents from the list below, available on the SASS website.

  • Following the Instructions
  • Planning the Paper (Defining the Topic)
  • Planning the Paper (Doing some Research)
  • Planning the Paper (Making an Outline)
  • Writing the Paper
  • Editing the Paper
  • APA Reference Guide

Review the story you wrote in Exercise 1. As writing is a creative process, going back to a piece you have produced after a period of time can give you a fresh perspective. Edit and rewrite your story using academic writing as well as other learnings from the readings in this exercise. Post your revised story in your journal. Finally, search on the University of Ottawa library website in the ERIC database for a research article of interest to you. Using the article you discover, create a reference for the article using APA 6th edition format. In your journal write the reference. An additional reference for this exercise, and for your studies, you may consider the American Psychological Association (APA) website.

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Exercise 5: Confidence & The Imposter Syndrome

First, watch the YouTube video called Mature Student Tips “Overcoming Anxiety”. It is approximately two minutes in length and you will hear from Diane Zorn, a Professor from the Faculty of Liberal Arts & Professional Studies at York University

Next, read the following article by Amanda Chapman recently published in the Journal of Further and Higher Education (Appendix M).

Chapman, A (2015): Using the assessment process to overcome Imposter Syndrome in mature students. Journal of Further and Higher Education, 1-8. DOI:10.1080/0309877X.2015.106285

After watching the YouTube video and read the journal article, create a journal entry reflecting on your thoughts and feelings watching and reading the material in this exercise.

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