male sitting in an empty art classroom

Low-stress learning: Lifelong learning classes offer skills and build community without exams, grades

male sitting in an empty art classroom

Low-stress learning: Lifelong learning classes offer skills and build community without exams, grades

cmills4 November 22, 2019

Imagine being able to take a class without the stress of exams, graded assignments and deadlines.

Students of Pellissippi State’s non-credit lifelong learning classes will tell you it’s not only possible, they’ve been doing it for years.

“The first class I took was one of the Appalachia history classes with Mark Davidson,” remembered Gay Orr, 64. “A friend of mine had read about the class. She knows I love history and said we should take the class together. Oddly enough, she ended up having other commitments and wasn’t able to take the class with me. I still point that out to her all these years later – I’ve taken 14 of Mark’s classes since then!”

Since 2013, Orr has taken 18 lifelong learning classes offered by Pellissippi State, including classes in the Our Appalachia series, estate planning, handgun safety and beekeeping.

“It’s a little treasure to have these types of classes in this size of community,” Orr said. “I enjoy keeping my mind active. I actually started this when my kids were in college so I didn’t have to run on their schedule. I had more time to do things. Now I get to go back to school and I enjoy it.”

male talking to a female at a table
Gay Orr, right, talks with Mark Davidson, who teaches the Our Appalachia series at Pellissippi State’s Blount County Campus.

Lifelong learning classes are offered through Pellissippi State’s Business and Community Services office. Many of these noncredit classes are focused on personal enrichment and focus on a variety of topics including handmade arts, fishing, foreign languages, genealogy, health and wellness, musical instruments, photography and personal finances.

BCS also offers professional development classes such as computer training, industry and manufacturing classes, leadership workshops and security guard training.

Most lifelong learning classes are offered in a way that allows students to learn a new skill and then continue to improve on that skill. Classes such as Appalachian dulcimer, speaking Spanish, digital photography and the Our Appalachia series allow students to continue building on and practicing what they learned in their first class.

Because the classes are not for academic credit, they come with low pressure, which is part of the draw for students like Orr.

“I’m a student that doesn’t have to take tests,” Orr noted. “I’m doing it for the pure pleasure of learning. And that’s what I think is wonderful. There’s no pressure. I’m not trying to get certified or anything. I’m just doing it because I’m interested.”

She’s in good company. More than 800 students take lifelong learning classes at Pellissippi State each semester. While some students may only ever take one class, there are many with stories like Orr’s.

Bill Black (pictured above) is a familiar face each semester in the basket weaving classes taught by Sheri Burns.

“For at least two years, I’ve taken one or two classes each semester,” said Black, 66. “There are a lot of the same people in many of the basket weaving classes, with a few new faces each time. I’m encountering people that I wouldn’t have any other reason to encounter and having conversations that I wouldn’t have had otherwise.

“And it’s just fun,” he added. “If you can have fun and learn something at the same time, that’s kind of the best!”

female sitting in chair playing dulcimer
Sandra Lambert has taken five Appalachian Dulcimer classes over the past two years.

Like Orr, Black heard about Pellissippi State’s lifelong learning classes from a friend. Going into his first basket weaving class, he did not expect that he would still be taking classes years later – but he continues to learn something new each time.

“Basket weaving is like playing the piano or singing – you know how to do it, but you need to practice,” he explained. “I always do a better job the second time I make a basket. I’ve gotten better at making a round basket round now because I’ve done it enough times. Sheri’s really good, too, at letting us experiment so it doesn’t have to look just like the sample.”

Similar to undergraduates discovering their niches at Pellissippi State, lifelong learning students also are finding new places to fit in.

Sandra Lambert has taken five Appalachian Dulcimer classes with instructor Rudy Ryan over the past two years.

“I had seen the Beginner Dulcimer class in the catalog so I thought I’d give it a try,” explained Lambert, 56. “I pretty much went through my first four classes [beginner, novice, intermediate I and II] with almost the same people. That spanned a year and half, and that was nice because you get to know people a little bit better.”

Taking Appalachian Dulcimer at Pellissippi State opened up Lambert to a whole new set of friends, inside and outside of class.

“I didn’t realize there was such a big dulcimer community,” she noted. “I’ve gone to a few jams, and there’s a Knoxville area dulcimer club we belong to now. I’ve seen some of the people from my classes in the area clubs too.”

Experiences like these are why Lambert recommends Pellissippi State’s lifelong learning classes to others.

“I learn something every time,” she said. “It keeps your mind active. I think it gives you an outlet for a hobby – if you work all day, it gives you something extra to do on the side. But the best part is really learning and meeting people and getting out.”

Lifelong Learning classes are offered throughout the year.

To see the offerings or to register for a class, go to, or call 865.539.7167.