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Essential Study Skills for Adults Returning to School


Adults returning to school are taking the first step toward a better job and higher earnings. It’s natural to feel mixed emotions during such a significant transition. You might be eager to learn, anxious about the future or worried about juggling 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 in school, work and life — even when you’re balancing all three.

Get into the Right Mindset

Returning to school requires a shift in your thinking. You’ll need to incorporate schoolwork into your daily life, which may shake up your routine and lifestyle. These strategies can help you develop positive study habits and avoid distractions that undermine your success: 

Find Your Motivation 

Why are you going back to school? Although a college degree indeed 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 self-sufficient? Grow at your company? Break through a career ceiling? The more reasons you have for attending school, the better. 

It may also be helpful to list the things you are trying to escape. If you dislike your boss or 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 in terms of your future. “If I can commit two hours today, I will be one step closer to getting my dream home/forging a new career path/showing my kids how to make a difference in the world.” 

Develop a Routine 

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

Each semester, make yourself a time budget. The goal should be to give each day a predictable rhythm. Some questions to ask yourself include: 

  • What is your studying routine? Determine what you need to do before you study, what supplies you need, and where you plan to do your schoolwork.
  • What is your morning ritual? Getting up around the same time every day, eating a healthy meal and participating in small habits such as 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 mean you spend less time planning, negotiating and waiting. Try setting up regular playdates for your kids so 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. 

Prepare Your Study Environment

Your study environment can make or break your academic success. No two students have the same study needs or habits, but no one thrives in chaos. These tactics can make studying feel less stressful:

Eliminate Distractions 

Multitasking is a myth. You can’t check your kids’ homework while studying or make work conference calls while drafting a paper. Student success demands that you commit to diving deep into your coursework, not trying to fit it in in five-minute bursts. Set aside a dedicated study area, even if it’s just a chair in the 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 — at a library, coffee shop, or even 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 are ready to go. Otherwise, you’ll lose momentum every time you leave the room to get them. 

Get Your Kids To Play Independently

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

Minimize Chaos

Everyone has unique distractions. For some, it’s the pile of laundry in the corner of the room. For others, it’s a hot office or an uncomfortable chair. Reduce the chaos that surrounds you, and you will reduce the stress you feel while studying. Try to design a relatively clean study environment with a comfortable temperature and no visible reminders of your stressors. That means studying next to a pile of bills or laundry is never a good idea.

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Study Effectively

Don’t waste time and energy on an ineffective approach to learning. These studying tips can help you maximize learning:

Experiment with Study Styles

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

Here are some options to consider: 

  • Write down the most important information during class and when you read.
  • Discuss the information you learn with others.
  • Find real-world examples of the material you study in school.
  • Work with a group to create a study guide.
  • Use 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, whereas long discussions can help you understand theoretical concepts. 

Engage With the Material

No matter your study style, you should try to incorporate learning into your daily life so concepts from class become familiar. For example, a business student might look for evidence of the concepts they are learning on the news or even at their local coffee shop. 

Here are some strategies that can help you engage with your coursework:

  • Watch news stories or listen to podcasts that cover the material you learn in class. 
  • Talk to your 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 from class. 
  • Consider alternative perspectives on theories from your coursework. 

Study With a Group

Working through complex material can feel isolating. So don’t go it alone! Talking to your classmates about school can help you dig deeper and see things from different perspectives. 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 can’t. Schedule a regular group study session online to get the most out of group work without wasting time commuting. 

Become a Master of Time Management

Strong organizational and time management skills can mean the difference between academic excellence and falling behind. Time management is similar to money management: When you manage your time well, it feels like there is more of it. Here are some tips for becoming an expert in time management: 

  • Experiment to figure out when in the day you do your best, fastest, least distracted work. Then schedule that time for studying. 
  • Plan out each day, making a time budget. 
  • Learn how long it takes you to do certain tasks so you can appropriately budget your time. 
  • Schedule childcare for study time so that you don’t have to multitask. 
  • Make the most of the time you spend waiting in the doctor’s office or for meetings to start. Use these moments of frustration to read or review course material. 
  • Develop an organizational system that works for you. 

Maximize Class Time

Class time — whether online or in-person — gives you access to the years of hard-earned knowledge and wisdom your professors have to offer. Don’t miss out on this opportunity to learn. Make the most of class with these tips: 

Pay Attention

Whether online or in-person, paying attention in class is essential for success. To get the most out of each session, 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. 
  • Prepare a list of questions to ask. This encourages you to think deeply about the material. It also flags areas in which you’re struggling. 
  • Make note of the information your professor spends the most time on. Each instructor has a 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 understand what is most important in the professional world. 

Participate in class. Whether you’re posting to an online discussion board or sharing ideas in person, participating in class can help the material become more familiar. Don’t miss out on this valuable opportunity to test your comprehension.

Participate in Discussion

One of the key benefits of higher learning is the chance to test out new ideas. So don’t stay quiet in class. Make the most of it by doing the following: 

  • Ask questions as soon as you do not understand something. 
  • Share opinions on the course material and ask for feedback. 
  • Explore how theoretical concepts affect real-world practice. 
  • Talk to your professor after class or on classroom bulletin boards. This encourages you to learn more and can establish a relationship for future recommendations or professional advice. 

If you’re in an online program, taking advantage of breakout sessions, your professor’s office hours and online discussion boards are great ways to utilize the above strategies.

Connect With Your Peers

When you enter the working world in your chosen profession, your relationships with colleagues will play a pivotal role in your success. Practice professional networking by getting to know your classmates. Take an interest in their ideas and lives, and ask them for feedback on your thoughts. You will broaden your horizons and gain valuable insights that might have taken years to gain in a workplace. 

Study Better with These Resources

Want to become a studying master? Try these strategies: 

  • Check out studying apps. The right studying app can make you a more effective studier, often with less time invested. Make flashcards with Flashcards+, become an expert notetaker with Evernote, or use Headspace to clear your cluttered mind and focus on learning. 
  • Use technology to better manage your time. Don’t try to store everything in your head. The right organization and time management apps make it easier to stay on top of your many duties.  Manage everything with MyStudyLife, keep track of lists with Remember the Milk, or make citations take less time with RefME. 
  • Ask your professor for help. Your teacher is there to help you learn — not to make you feel overwhelmed. If you’re struggling, ask for help early. SNU also offers disability accommodations and academic support to struggling learners. So if a brief chat with a professor doesn’t help, reach out. Delaying help is a massive obstacle to graduation.
  • Combine resources. No one can be good at everything, especially on their first try. Your SNU cohort is a valuable resource. Try working on a group outline that combines knowledge from each member. You will become smarter and better positioned for success.

SNU is deeply committed to student success. Adult students returning to school get support from the moment they complete their application to graduation and beyond. We understand that seeking a degree can feel daunting — maybe even impossible. But with our unique programs designed to fit your busy schedule, you can do it.

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

To learn what sets us apart and get additional tips for mastering your return to school, subscribe to our blog.

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