Back to the Future: The Educational Returns of Lifelong Learner Avatars


Financial experts have long known that various “nudges”—techniques and policies that influence people while still leaving them with freedom of choice—can induce people to save more of their income. One such technique uses visualization: technology can create imagined images or avatars of our older selves, leading to a stronger commitment to prepare for an eventual retirement. Hopkins (2019) gives an overview of how this concrete anticipation of our future selves resulted in a doubling of retirement savings.

We decided to apply this basic idea to education, though with a twist. Instead of prodding our traditional-aged undergraduate students to imagine their older selves, we asked students in our lifelong learning program (aged 62 and older) to give advice to their younger selves. Students in the FILL (Florham Institute for Lifelong Learning) program on our campus are retirees who take courses alongside traditional undergraduates. Although FILL students usually take classes as auditors, their participation and contributions are often stronger than those of learners enrolled in the courses for credit. FILL students show up each day well prepared, take deep interest in course content, and display an ability to connect content to wider issues in ways that elude most of their younger classmates.

Given the FILL cohort’s clear classroom and academic success, we wondered if we might use them as a group of flesh-and-blood, interactive avatars for students in their late teens and early twenties. The first step in this process was to get our lifelong learners to reflect on what they’re doing now academically that they perhaps didn’t do when they were traditional undergraduates.

We took our measurements by way of an online survey in which FILL students volunteered information about their current level of class preparation and how it compared to their work as younger students. One of our early expectations was that FILL students would indicate they assiduously prepared for class meetings by reading assigned materials in advance, and our poll results bore that out. Fifty-five percent of respondents reported that they always do the assigned readings, with another 27 percent saying they usually do. Although we don’t have direct measures of how these results compare to the reading rates of our traditional-age students, we do know from other work that undergraduates are prone to skip readings (Hoeft 2012).

Even though the FILL students are not worrying about assignments or grades, they carefully do the readings anyway—and they regularly contribute to text-based discussion that enhances class meetings and the overall course culture. They model the benefits of coming to class prepared and ready to learn more.

What other advice might our students glean from the FILL group in serving as projections of their older selves? Perhaps the more interesting results came when we asked an open-ended question about what advice our lifelong learners would give to their younger, undergraduate selves. As one might imagine, the responses varied, with more than a few defying easy categorization: one FILL respondent expressed apparent remorse by saying, “Don’t major in English,” while another recommended yoga.

But certain broad trends did emerge. First, echoing the results above, there were multiple responses (19 percent of the total) extolling the benefits of doing the course readings or otherwise preparing for class. While some remarks were perfunctory (“Keep current with your reading and studying,” “Be prepared for each class”), others indicated specific skills (“Read textbook material and outline each paragraph”). FILL members’ earlier self-reported reading habits suggest they practice what they preach.

Second, one-quarter of our senior-citizen students voiced the importance of focusing and paying attention. While some responses were clearly in reaction to observed behavior of younger learners (“Don’t look at your phone!” scolded one), others evoked the timelessness of temptation in students’ lives, perhaps capturing their own past capacity for distraction. “Focus on your courses. Less partying,” wrote one, while another stated more prosaically, “Disregard distractions.” Indeed, the wisdom of the ages did not obviously sugarcoat the past: 75 percent of our surveyed FILL students self-identified as equally or more focused on their studies now than they had been as undergraduates.

A plurality of codable responses (39 percent) expressed a sentiment as broad as the two categories above, encouraging delight in, and openness to, learning. “Enjoy the experience” or close cognates thereof were oft-repeated phrases. Other related replies hinted at the dangers of parochial attitudes as well as regret over missed educational opportunities. One respondent urged their younger self to “pursue areas of interest beyond a chosen major,” while another wished to have “take[n] courses outside of my comfort zone.”

Whereas trite admonitions simply to “enjoy learning” probably fall on younger students’ deaf ears, faculty do have agency to effect greater exploration in undergraduates’ curricula through one-on-one advising. Distribution requirements are another way to enforce a more diverse learning experience, but this structural approach to encouraging learning can suffer from two deficits. First, requiring a course or even a category of courses can, by itself, have the effect of depressing student motivation or at least ownership over course selection. Second, such an approach emphasizes a mandated, general breadth of exposure over student-initiated pursuit of topics of personal interest or passion. The trade-off between required breadth and self-directed education is necessarily a zero-sum game: the window of opportunity to pursue areas of interest in the form of free electives narrows with university-imposed distributional regimentation. Our own institution’s constant revamping of major and general education requirements is surely done with good intent, but it can also result in mission creep that gets in the way of the core instinct of our FILL cohort: encouraging students to use their freedom to explore new areas.

A skeptic might point out several problems with our preliminary study. First, one might charge a selection bias: the FILL population, many of whom went on to earn advanced degrees and all of whom chose to return to school in retirement, were probably always more devoted and enthusiastic students. But that’s precisely why their habits and mindsets are worthy of exploration. What put them on this path? And who better to serve as role models to younger college learners?

The second and more daunting issue is whether our traditional students can view their older and more educated classmates as avatars from the future, learning from their perspective and heeding their advice. This isn’t necessarily a judgment about stubborn or small-minded younger students who can’t imagine their future. Rather, it’s a concession that what the older FILL students may possess is a wisdom that is difficult to emulate, in part because it has accrued only with time, developing a confident sense of self and a life trajectory, and, undoubtedly, through making countless painful mistakes. Should we rightly expect our traditional-age undergraduates to internalize their elders’ perspective, built from years of experience?

Burkholder is reminded of a column he wrote in 2014 describing his teaching of heuristics for more effective reading. Students proved they were perfectly capable of mimicking the process and even admitted to the method’s value. But they also revealed that they probably wouldn’t use it going forward, thus demonstrating the transactional nature of their learning. It’s possible those same students will ultimately adopt the technique, but the minimum threshold for doing so is typically at least a decade of practice. Our senior learners’ abilities to see the value in proven methods and mindsets gives them an advantage over their younger classmates, manifesting not only in their classroom contributions but in their continued efforts to explore and improve themselves.

But maybe the two generations can meet in the middle, helping the younger students shorten the 10-year slope. Unlike the financial industry’s imaginative aging trick to encourage retirement savings, our investigation is not meant to parlay into greater wealth. But if the FILL cohort can teach traditional undergraduates how to be more efficient, focused, and joyous students, perhaps we can accelerate the payoffs of education, financial and otherwise.


Burkholder, Pete. 2014. “Why You Read Like an Expert—and Why Your Students Probably Don’t.” Faculty Focus, November 17.

Hoeft, Mary. 2012. “Why University Students Don’t Read: What Professors Can Do to Increase Compliance.” International Journal for the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning 6 (2).

Hopkins, Jamie. 2019. “How to Get Investors to Save More for Retirement? Perhaps by Saying Hello to Their Future Self.” CNBC.

Pete Burkholder, PhD, is professor of history at Fairleigh Dickinson University, where he served as founding chair of the faculty teaching development program from 2009 to 2017. He is on the editorial board of The Teaching Professor, is a consulting editor for College Teaching, and serves on the national advisory boards of the Society for History Education and ISSOTL-H: The International Society for SoTL in History.

Bruce Peabody, PhD, is professor of government and politics at Fairleigh Dickinson University, where he has served as director of the Florham Institute for Lifelong Learning since 2011. He has written about teaching and pedagogy in various contexts, including the LLI Resource Network Newsletter and Short Stories and Political Philosophy: Power, Prose, and Persuasion (2019), coedited with Erin Dolgoy and Kimberly Hale.

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