Adult Learning: Study Tips for College

man sitting on couch taking notes as he flips through textbook

A step forward. There are many reasons to go back to school as an adult — or start your college career for the first time. For some adult learners, it’s about accomplishing a goal that may have been a long-time dream. For others, it may mean completing a plan that was in progress many years ago, before life happened. Some adults look to education as a way to advance a career, add a specialty, or learn skills and take on new responsibilities in their jobs. For other adult learners, it may be simply a matter of broadening horizons, either professionally or personally.

Whatever the reason, attending college as an adult is a courageous step forward. But juggling many responsibilities as an adult can be challenging, whether you’re fitting in classes between military assignments, work responsibilities, or family needs. Be prepared with these study tips for college.

First, Acknowledge the Challenge — Then, Get Over It

As an adult learner, you have more on your plate than most traditional 18- to 22-year-old college students. A job (or two!), military commitments, and maybe a family to support, all take up every corner of your life. How are you going to study with everything else you have going on?

It may have been years since you last sat in a classroom or had to complete a research and writing assignment. What if you’re too rusty? What if you can’t focus on or can’t keep up with the coursework?

Will you feel out of place if you’re surrounded by students much younger than yourself who are at a totally different stage of life than you? Maybe you are transitioning out of the military and are worried you won’t “fit in.” You’ll need practical guidance and mentoring to integrate your coursework, college study, and your everyday responsibilities; you don’t need abstract or “in the future” advice, your reality is now.

Now, it’s time to find a right-fit solution to make it work

At National University, these challenges are addressed with programs tailored to adult learning, active duty service members, and vets. To help fit college courses into busy adult lives, National offers many programs and courses fully online. A four-week class schedule and the flexibility to start and stop as you choose means that when life or work gets in the way, you can pause, not derail, your educational goals. In fact, you’ll have flexible options of when to start a class (they start every four weeks, year-round), you can opt to take classes on-campus or learn fully online — or a mix of both. It is education designed to fit into your adult life.

Because of the many adult learners at National, you’ll meet people of all ages and stages of life, with varying levels of academic achievement and many different approaches to learning. Some may not have been in a classroom setting in decades, while others may have been steadily earning credits over many years as they work toward their goal. Students bring their life experiences and different perspectives to the classroom, so you’ll feel right at home.

Successful adult learning also often requires a different kind of academic advising. National University assigns an academic advisor from the moment of enrollment, instead of years into a degree path. Your advisor can help you select courses and programs that are relevant to your field of study or your career goals. Your advisor will help you adjust your schedule to fit your individual responsibilities and identify resources that can help you stay on track to achieve success.

Study Tips for College

Even with flexible class schedules, online learning, and support for adult learners, carving out time to study and do well in your classes can be hard. How do you study in college as an adult learner when you have military duty, your kids never give you a moment of peace, or your job is busy and stressful? We’ve collected several ideas for how to study in college and stay sane and productive in the process:

Schedule It

Your regular responsibilities run on a schedule — work shifts, kids’ sports practices, deadlines, and military duty rosters. Just like you have to fit in everything — from the time at the gym to different work shifts to grocery shopping — fitting study time into your schedule is an absolute must.

One of the best ways to make time for studying to earn your on-site or online degree is to block out chunks of time on your schedule. Whether it’s a set time every day or fitting it in between tasks, pre-planning is key.

Find a scheduling tool that works for you. You might use a day planner or desk calendar where you can note blocks of study time and when assignments are due. If an online calendar you can quickly view on your phone works better, use that. Perhaps you like making lists — try sticky notes (paper or digital) with a list of each assignment and what you’ll need to study in order of when it’s due. Then cross it off as you complete each piece. Reach out to your classmates or professors to see what has worked well for them or for other advice on how to study in college.

If you share a schedule with a partner or keep your family’s schedule posted so everyone knows what’s going on, make sure you include your study schedule there, too. It’s an important time commitment, just like any other.

Make a list

Speaking of lists, lists can be your friends. You can make lists for your studying needs to make sure you’re on track with school assignments, as well as daily or weekly lists so you know what you should be prioritizing and you keep it top of mind. Lists can help you organize tasks and remind you of deadlines. The act of writing something down can help you visualize the work and feel calmer about accomplishing it. And it gives you the opportunity to cross each item off, helping you feel on top of things. Put the list where you can see it or use one of the many list apps available such as Todoist or Google Tasks.

Break it down

Taking your assignments and breaking them down into manageable chunks will help you visualize them better so you can plan out how you’ll tackle the work. For instance:

  1. Step one: pick a topic.
  2. Step two: schedule time to research the topic.
  3. Step three: write an outline of your assignment.
  4. Step four: schedule time to write (add time for a final edit).
  5. Step five: turn it in on the deadline.

You can apply this step-by-step mindset to a presentation, speech, or other types of projects as well. Break down when you’ll be researching, studying, and writing, and you’ll have a whole plan in place to help you focus and accomplish your assignment.

Involve your family and friends

Now that you’re organized, involve your support system in your study routine. Even kids as young as elementary schoolers can be helpful — they can quiz you with flashcards, or you can set aside time to do your homework together. Not only will you get your job done, but you’ll also be setting a great example for your kids. Ask your friends or partner to help you study. Or, ask your friends or family to help you make time for studying by watching the kids or picking up the occasional dinner. Maybe one of your colleagues at work will give up some of their lunch breaks to quiz you on something you need to focus on.

Identify which responsibilities you can shift away from your schedule — whether someone else will take care of them (picking up the kids two days/week) or if they are things that just won’t get done during the time you’re taking a class or that you may need to pull in outside resources for (a neighborhood kid for yard work, for instance). Having a plan of attack in place for how you’ll be juggling your life, with a little extra support, can set you on a solid path for college study.

Find a place to study

Go on campus occasionally, if you have that option. Even if you’re taking an online course, you can still use the resources of National University’s campuses to help you study. Whether that’s a campus center, student lounge, cafeteria, vet center, or library, you’ll find many places to go where you can focus without work or family distractions.

Learn to say no

During a season of your life when you’re trying to follow these study tips for college, it’s OK to say no to other commitments. This is a time to turn down volunteering asks and bring something store-bought to the bake sale at the kids’ school instead of making something from scratch. It’s a time when maybe you give up those after-work get-togethers with your colleagues for a while, and you don’t volunteer for extra assignments at work as often. You may need to turn to family members or friends to help out with your kids’ school projects or help take care of the family pet if you’ll be studying intensely for an upcoming final. Say no, especially when you know it will take time or energy away from your educational goals.

Don’t waste the time you do have

While this is always good advice, here we mean specifically the things that just take your time without giving you anything (practical) back — for instance, social media sites, binge-watching TV shows or movies, playing video games, or lingering over the news long after you should go to bed, etc. We all know they’re time suckers, but it’s part of our routines these days, and they are things that people enjoy. It’s OK to relax, and you don’t have to give up everything that you like to do, but plan that time, at least for the duration of your educational journey. Scope out chunks of time when it’s OK to unwind, but set a timer so you don’t realize two hours later that you’re still engaged in that activity when there’s a paper due for your class tomorrow. When you’re supposed to be focused on studying, make sure that remains a priority and eliminate unnecessary distractions as much as possible.

Carry a book

Remember the days before cell phones, when people carried books for entertainment and instruction? Take a step back in time. As adult learners, one of the best study tips for college is to carry a book with you at all times, one that you’re reading for class. Whether it’s in your purse, on your passenger seat, tucked into a backpack, or on a digital device, having a book during those free moments during the day can help you get ahead on assignments. Whenever you have downtime — the line at the coffee shop is long, you’re in the school kid pickup line, stuck waiting for a meeting to start at work, or you’re walking on a treadmill: Pull out that book, read, study, and highlight.

Know yourself

Everyone has a time of day that’s their most productive. For some, it might be early in the morning before everyone’s up and busy. For others, mid-day might be when they suddenly start speeding up productivity. Perhaps evening or late-night hours are when you come alive. Regardless of when your productive time is, use it. Capitalize on the hours of the day you’re most productive to get your college study tasks done. It doesn’t have to be every moment of those hours, but try to set aside time most days — the office lunch break, while you’re munching a meal in the evening when everyone else is in bed and it’s quiet — to put in some time to keep your homework moving forward.

Be Honest

It’s going to happen at some point: You’ll feel overwhelmed. Whether it’s while you’re in the middle of a project at work, reviewing a text you need to read for your class, studying for a test, or trying to work at home on an assignment late into the night, there will be moments where you’re not sure how you’ll do it all. And that’s a good time, to be honest with those who support you. Talk with your academic advisor and your professors, there may be deadline extensions you can work on or adjustments that can be made. Perhaps you need to take a short break between your courses; that’s the great part about National’s month-long courses — if you need to step away for a month, you can resume your education the following month.

Talk to your boss, colleagues, partner, or family, too. Maybe responsibilities can be shifted for a short time, or some commitments can be rescheduled. Talk to your classmates, they are probably going through the exact same thing, and that can be reassuring, you are not the only one feeling this way. The important thing to remember is that you don’t have to go it alone. There are resources available to help you. Take a deep breath — and then reach out.

Celebrate the wins

In juggling all the work of taking courses and managing adult learning, it’s easy to feel weighed down by everything you’re working toward. Take time to celebrate the wins — another week completed, another reading assignment you mastered, another paper turned in, or a test finished. Every little step will get you closer to your degree or goal.

It’s a Journey, and It Begins With That Step Forward

Not all online colleges or college campus experiences are the same. So, you do need to choose carefully to find a good educational fit for your unique goals and lifestyle. But every day, you and many others of all different backgrounds are taking steps to add to their education, whether through online degrees or courses on a college campus.

At National University, you have the opportunity to do either or both, a choice of more than 75 different programs to fit your life and career goals, and a support system to help you get there. Remember: Education is a commitment. And knowing how to study in college as an adult learner is a skill you can learn, like any other.

Visit the programs page to learn about the many flexible and supportive options at National University. Go ahead and take that step forward.

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