Can You Take Calculus In Your Sixties?

Taking calculus or another math course in your sixties is a great idea. I know this because I’m doing it. I write this in the year I’ll turn 65 and be eligible for Medicare. This is also the year I decided to finally make it official and enroll in Calculus 1. Even though it’s early days (the midpoint of Calculus 1), I’m scoring very high marks so far. As I like to joke at home, my grades are high enough that I’m sure I’ll one day be admitted to the nursing home of my choice.

Not only am I doing quite well, in this article, we’ll discuss how taking Calculus later in life makes it easier to do well at it, not harder. I’ll also share exactly what I did so you can ace calculus in your sixties too!

Let’s face it, the teenagers who will be your classmates have youth and energy that you don’t. The best revenge is wrecking the grading curve on them.

The Preliminary Terrors

Chapter One of Sylvanus P. Thompson’s great little book, Calculus Made Easy, has the fun title, “To Deliver You From the Preliminary Terrors.” In the case of the book, the preliminary terrors were the notation for the differential and the integral, which we won’t dwell on here.

I do want to deliver you from a different sort of preliminary terror, however. It’s something that you may be thinking. A 98-year-old friend of mine said the quiet part out loud (jokingly, let’s hope), when I told him of my decision to take Calculus for a grade. His exact words were these:

“You’re too old to learn Calculus.”

Delicacy prevents me from quoting my short response, but you can probably guess it. We’re still great friends. More importantly, he was wrong.

You’re Just the Right Age

There are at least two main varieties of this myth that you’re too old for Calculus that I would like to incinerate with you. The first of these is that you’ve slowed down mentally, that the inevitable decline in cognition that accompanies aging means you won’t be able to compete with those more recently minted humans you’ll encounter in your classroom. Their fresh twenty-year-old neurons are no match for that aging wiring that you’re wearing, right?

Well, yes and no. The brightest and most motivated of these folks are certainly formidable competitors, but compared to them, consider:

  • You’re probably less concerned with finding a life partner, either because you have one, you’ve already lost one, or you just don’t care that much.

  • You may have matured over the years. Certainly if you came across this article in a search engine, there’s a fair chance that your weekends are not given over to wild debauches, even if you may have done your share of that when you were younger.

  • Unlike the young people you’ll be on this journey with, your prefrontal cortex has already finished forming. That means you likely have much richer experience in how to work toward and accomplish a goal.

  • Finally, your Calculus classmates are likely to have other things going on in their lives that steal the time that you can spend studying. They have a full course load, while you have the luxury of a single course. They may have jobs to go to or young families. For those of us in retirement, in contrast, the paradox is that although we may be running out of time (in an actuarial sense), on a day-to-day basis we’re actually have plenty of time to spend as we will.

The second part of this myth that we’re too old takes the form of the well-known fact that many famous mathematicians make their major contributions in their youths, often in their twenties. Newton formulated the laws of motion and developed the integral calculus when he was twenty-four years old. Einstein published his theory of special relativity when he was twenty-six.

Like other objections to something worthwhile in life that start with “Everyone knows…”, the answer to this one is “So what?” Yes, you may be too old to be a math genius. So what? Study it anyway, if that’s what you want to do. If you enjoy playing golf, should you break your clubs and curl up into a ball of despair because Tiger Woods was featured in Golf Digest when he was five years old? Does Stevie Wonder getting a #1 Billboard hit at the age of thirteen mean you shouldn’t take up the piano? To be sure, it takes a lot of hard work to make significant discoveries in math, but that’s a very different thing than mastering some basic techniques that upwards of a half-million undergraduates learn in the US every year.

You got this.

Taking Calculus for Fun vs. Taking It for Credit

Before we get into some specific suggestions and techniques for doing well in Calculus (or another math course), let’s briefly address the pros and cons of taking the course for credit vs. taking it for fun. There are many great resources to help you learn Calculus online. Two popular free ones are Kahn Academy and Professor Leonard. Both these resources are great, and I’ve used them extensively, but you’ll want to combine such video resources with lots of practice exercises. At sites like, you can purchase earlier editions of many college calculus texts at huge discounts. For example, my current community college text lists for $308, but I bought an earlier edition in good condition for less than ten dollars. In lieu of a text, an outstanding free resource with problem sets and with worked solutions is Paul’s Online Math Notes.

The main benefit to learning on your own is that you’ll save quite a bit of money. I originally started that way myself, and it’s a good way to test the waters before (or instead of) paying for a university course. I eventually decided, however, to dive in and take Calculus 1 for credit. This was partly a personal demon I wanted to exorcise. Beyond that, taking the course for credit means you’ll have a third party evaluation and validation of being “done.” I’ve found that it also helps enormously to have a well-structured set of lectures and accompanying exercises and exams. I will almost certainly continue with other courses at my local Community College (where you’re almost certain to spend less than even in-state tuition at a university).

How to Ace Calculus – or Another Math Course – in Your Sixties and Beyond

Before I embark on a set of tips for “How to Ace Calculus”, I should do a quick tip of the hat to the book of the same name. There’ll be some overlap between the suggestions here and what you’ll read there, but the book is still a fun and worthwhile read in its own right. What we also want to highlight here are some tips that are especially important if you’re taking Calculus later in life.

With that out of the way, here are my suggestions:

  • Review before you begin. If you’re taking a course as an adult, it may have been some time since you studied whatever course usually comes “before” the one you’re taking. You’ll want to review this. Mathematics is a famously cumulative subject, where one course builds on another. This is very different from something like History. Taking modern US history without learning all about ancient and medieval history is a perfectly reasonable thing to do. As I mentioned earlier, I spent some time learning Calculus online before deciding to take it in person. Once I was ready to make it official, I also went back and reviewed many topics from high school algebra and “pre-calculus”, including the unit circle, how to factor, solving quadratics, and other techniques and subjects I knew were important but where I felt weak.

  • Find the best teacher. I chose my first calculus teacher by looking at my college’s catalog and looking up all the teachers on Calculus is Calculus either way, so a big part of whether you’ll enjoy it or suffer from it is finding the right instructor.

  • Math is not a spectator sport. I’m not the first one to say this, but it’s important enough to mention it again. It’s especially important if you were strong in other subjects where you could do well by showing up to class and reading a book or two, because you may think you can do that in math. Unless you’re a lot smarter than me (and I’m no slouch), you can’t. So do all the homework, and if you have time for additional practice problems, do those, too. Then review the problems – especially the ones you found hard – before the exam. Remember, you’re retired. What else is going on – feeding pigeons in the park? Don’t worry about them. There are no skinny pigeons.

  • Use online and offline tools (sparingly) I took a two-pronged approach to homework. On the one hand, I used tools like SymPy and Wolfram Alpha to help me when I got stuck on a homework problem, or when I wanted to confirm some part of a problem that I thought I knew already. On the other hand, I knew that in an exam situation, it would be just up to me and my handy TI-84 calculator, so I made sure I understood how to do the problems by hand. If your teacher has office hours, use them if you need to. And speaking of your calculator, if like me you were baffled by this alien device in the first days of class, spend some time knowing how to graph functions and create tables of values, etc., before the first exam.

  • Use the study guide If your instructor is nice enough to provide a study guide before your class, use it! I like to treat it first as a (timed) practice test, then go over it in more detail later.

If you’ve read this far, you certainly have more than enough drive and determination to be successful in Calculus. Perhaps all that’s missing now is your belief in yourself, that you can do this. If that’s the case, I’ll leave you with my favorite motivational quote from Thompson’s Calculus Made Easy:

Considering how many fools can calculate, it is surprising that it should be thought either a difficult or a tedious task for any other fool to learn how to master the same tricks.... What one fool can do, another can.