The nights are drawing in, the end of the year is nigh and now's the time to plan for 2010. For thousands of adults across, Britain this means choosing a short course, whether for personal development or to improve your job prospects.

The name of the game is to make yourself more resilient, says Alastair Thomson from the National Institute of Adult Continuing Education (NIACE). This may mean learning website design or a new IT application.

In the case of Christine McInnes, a gilder who restores furniture, it could mean learning more about business. She began a six-week "Start your own business" course at London's City Literary Institute (City Lit) last January, after her husband gave it to her as a Christmas present.

"I'd already been working for myself for 10 years but it was the recession and I was nervous," she says, "Gilding is a luxury thing and I wanted to find a way through what was happening."

The course taught her what mistakes she was making – such as undercharging and treating her clients as friends – as well as discovering where her skills lay. Since finishing the course she has been involved in a range of projects, including gilding the most expensive chocolate bar in the world, which went on sale at Selfridges in the summer.

While McInnes is a success story, the number of adult learners has fallen this year. NIACE reports that just 18 per cent of adults in the UK are currently learning, the lowest level since 1997. Public funding cuts mean that there are fewer courses. But the reason people sign up for programmes remains the same, according to Thomson; they want to try out new things.

Most people don't want to commit themselves to a whole year of studying, so a short course can be ideal. Such programmes tend to be intensive and can be taken in a variety of ways, whether face to face or online or a mixture of both.

At City Lit, sewing and dressmaking are increasingly popular. Students want to customize the clothes they already have, rather than go out and buy new ones in a recession.

Courses include introductions to sewing, hand-knitting, and felt jewellery. Or you can learn how to make baskets, bags and containers from recycled materials. This is a six-week course running on a Friday, and the full fee is £164.

Most adult learners already have full- or part-time jobs and tend to prefer evening study. However City Lit reports a growing demand for weekend courses, whether in acting, philosophy or screenwriting. Many start in January or February.

Languages are popular, especially French, and creative writing. You could learn to turn personal experience into fiction on the autobiography in fiction course. Or, the literary-minded might prefer to spend time exploring the writings of Oscar Wilde?

Elsewhere, IT and computing courses appeal to many as short course options. Learn Direct offers two IT qualifications; ITQ (Information Technology Qualification) and ECDL (European Computer Driving Licence). It also has a Digital Literacy Certificate for those new to IT. Prices start from £20 and funding is available.

The Open University offers 40 short courses, many beginning in February, such as archaeology, astronomy or an introduction to Shakespeare. They last two to five months, and can count towards an OU degree, or be studied on their own. Most take 10 to15 hours of study a week and cost £150-£250.

Popular courses are digital photography, as well as "Design and the Web", and "Darwin and Evolution". New courses include "Energy Measurements within the home" and "Introduction to Financial Services".

The OU's media relations officer, Paula Feery, has herself signed up for a short course on understanding the weather. "I have big windows in my flat and I'm always watching the clouds rolling across the sky and checking the weather reports because I rock climb," she says. She decided to do the course for personal enjoyment but also because she believes it will make her safer on the mountain.

Furniture restorer Christine McInnes has a good idea what her husband might be getting for Christmas this year. "He found me the business course because I kept on saying I needed to do something about my business. He likes jazz guitar, so I just might buy him a music course."