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Essential Study Skills for Adults Returning to School

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Adults returning to school are taking the first step toward a life that offers a better job and higher earnings. It’s natural to feel mixed emotions during such a major transition. You might be eager to learn, anxious about the future, and worried about whether you'll be able to juggle your many roles as you pursue your education. Strong study skills are a key ingredient in the recipe for student success. Master these techniques so you can excel at school, work, and life—even when you’re balancing all three at the same time. 

Develop a Routine 

A routine is your most powerful weapon against uncertainty and chaos. After all, your time is your most valuable asset.

Commit some time each semester to making a time budget. The goal should be to give each day a predictable rhythm. Some things to look at include: 

  • Your studying routine. What do you do before you study? Which supplies do you need? Where in your home do you do your schoolwork? 
  • Your morning ritual. Getting up around the same time every day, eating a healthy meal, and participating in small rituals like drinking coffee or listening to the news can help you wake up ready to start the day. 
  • How much of your life can you automate? A regular childcare schedule, meal deliveries, and a well-negotiated schedule of duties split between you and your spouse means you spend less time planning, negotiating, and waiting. Try setting up regular playdates for your kids, too, so that they can get some time out of the house and you don’t have to waste time calling friends and nailing down schedules. 
  • When do you feel most motivated? Some people thrive on sunrises and coffee. Others do their best work when the kids are asleep and the crickets are chirping. Figure out when you’re most efficient, and carve out some study time during this period. 

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Eliminate Distractions 

Multitasking is a myth. You can’t check your kids’ homework while studying or try to make  work conference calls while drafting a paper. Student success demands that you commit to delving deeply into your coursework, not trying to fit it in in 5-minute bursts. Set aside a dedicated study area—even if it’s just a chair in a corner of your bedroom. If your house is small, your kids need your attention, or you can’t seem to stop the interruptions, try studying elsewhere—a library, coffee shop, or even at a friend’s house. Anywhere you can get some peace and quiet will do the trick.

When you’re in your study area, eliminate other distractions too. Try blocking social media for an hour and making sure you’re physically comfortable. Ensure your water bottle, coffee cup, and anything else you need in order to enjoy studying are ready to go. Otherwise, you’ll lose momentum every time you leave the room to get them. 

Find Your Motivation 

Why are you going to school? Although it’s certainly true that a college degree boosts your earning power, this might not be enough to keep you motivated when you bump up against the challenging realities of attending school. Jot down a list of your deepest motivations. Do you want to inspire your kids? Change the world? Buy a house? Become independent and self-sufficient? Grow at your company? Break through a career ceiling? The more reasons you have for attending school, the better. (Check out some of SNU’s students' reasons here.)

It may also be helpful to list the things you’re trying to escape. If you dislike your boss or your job, want to move to a better neighborhood, or feel that your current career offers little purpose, put these on your list too. 

When you’re struggling, pull out your list, and frame your decisions today in terms of your future. “If I can commit two hours today, I’m closer to my dream home/forging a new career path/showing my kids how to make a difference in the world.” 

Experiment with Studying Styles 

There’s no right way to study. Some people thrive in group learning. Others learn best when they can put their knowledge to work. Still, others find that writing down notes helps them commit information to memory. If you don’t already know your own study style, experiment with several methods. Then commit to using only those that help you learn information quickest and recall it in the most detail. 

Some options to consider include: 

  • Writing down the most important information during class and when you read 
  • Talking about the information you learn with others 
  • Finding real-world examples of the material you study in school 
  • Working with a study group to create a group study guide 
  • Using mnemonic devices like songs and acronyms 

You may find that different study methods work best for different types of information. For instance, an acronym might help you remember specific names or terms, while long discussions can help you better understand theoretical concepts. 

Get Your Kids to Play Independently

As every parent knows, kids can interrupt even the best laid plans. Even when you’re able to get some time to yourself, you may feel guilty or worry that your kids need you. Teaching kids to play by themselves can help alleviate some of the stress, and it may give you a few minutes of quiet time to study. You may even be able to learn alongside with your kids if you implement the right study tools (check out our list of options for mastering new skills together). 

Remote Group Study 

Working through complex material can feel isolating. Don’t try to go at it alone. Talking to your classmates about school can help you dig deeper and see things from a different perspective. At SNU, you work alongside the same group of students from the first day of class, all the way up until you graduate. This structure offers you a ready-made study group, so take advantage and work together. You may find that your peers can explain things in a way the textbook couldn’t. Schedule a regular group study session online to get the most out of group work without wasting time commuting. 

Our guide to staying engaged offers tips on connecting with your cohort and turning them into a viable professional network.

Pay Attention in Class 

It seems obvious that paying attention in class is a key to student success. To get the most out of each session, though, it’s important to be as mindful as possible. These strategies can keep you attentive and improve your mastery: 

  • Take notes. Jotting down information can help you commit it to memory. Note-taking also prevents your mind from wandering. 
  • Make a list of questions to ask. This encourages you to think deeply about the material. It also flags areas in which you’re struggling. 
  • Be aware of which information your professor spends the most time on. Each instructor has their own unique style and interests. Identifying the topics your professor values most can help you study. And because your teacher is a subject matter expert, focusing on the information they prioritize can help you better understand the knowledge that is most important in the professional world. 

Engage with the Material 

In most cases, it’s easier to recall the information you are learning if you make it relevant to your daily life. Some strategies that can help you engage with your coursework include:

  • Watching news stories or listening to podcasts that cover the material you learn in class. 
  • Talking to friends or family about your classes. Some may even have experience with the concepts you are learning about. 
  • Seek real-life examples of the principles you discuss in class. 
  • Consider alternative perspectives on theories you discuss. 

Participate in Class 

SNU is deeply committed to student success. Adult students returning to school get support from the moment they complete their application through graduation and beyond. We understand that seeking a degree can feel daunting, maybe even impossible. With our unique programs designed to fit your busy schedule, though, you can do it. To learn more about what sets us apart and additional tips for mastering the return to school, subscribe to our blog

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