Study Tips for Adult Learners

Learn ReUp Education's top study tips for adult learners
What’s the best way to learn when you’re a working adult returning to school? Our Success Coaches share proven study tips so you can effectively prep for class and exams.

Have you ever found yourself reading a textbook and highlighting, well, almost everything? Or have you taken notes during class but not really known what to do besides reread them before an exam?

You’re not alone.

Some of us were never taught how to study, to begin with. Or we have to work to remember our old study skills because it’s been a while since we were in school—sort of like having to dust off that old unicycle and learn to ride again. And many of us have to adapt our strategies as things change, such as shifting from pen and paper to PDFs or transitioning between online and in-person classes.

But there’s hope and there’s help! Wherever you are in (re)building your study toolkit, we’ve compiled a few of our Success Coaches’ favorite methods so you can determine what works best for you. We hope the following tips will help you optimize your study routine.

Discover your study zone

Find or create an environment where you can concentrate. You’re looking for a spot that’s comfortable, but not so comfortable that you’re likely to snooze.

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Keep distractions out of sight while studying. Common culprits include phones, laptops, tablets, TVs, anything Internet, piles of laundry, and bills.

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At home, this could be a desk, a kitchen or dining table, a couch, or your balcony or backyard if you have one. Elsewhere, you could try a quiet coffee shop, a favorite bench at the park, a private study room or desk at your campus library, or a table at your local public library.

It might take a few tries to figure out the right place for you, but once you’ve found it, make it your go-to workspace.

Choose your soundscape

The effect of sound on one’s concentration varies widely. Some of us thrive while listening to music, whether it’s nonvocal (e.g., classical, film score, or other instrumental) or with lyrics. Others prefer ambient nature sounds or white noise (think forest, ocean, and rainstorm). A few like having the constant hum of conversation in the background, such as in a café. Still, others work well with absolute silence. Experiment to find what level of noise and what kinds of sounds help you focus best.

Make the time to study

Just as you need to scout out a designated place to study, you’ll need to carve out time to read, research, and review each week.

Success Coach Manager John R. recommends one helpful strategy: “Identify your deadlines in advance, walk backward in your schedule from that due date, and identify those opportunities on your calendar to fit study time in.” Planning ahead helps reduce the likelihood of cramming, which is both an ineffective study habit and a major source of stress and anxiety.

Another Success Coach Marlee M. further suggests creating time blocks on your calendar. “Schedule out your study time weekly like you would schedule your class time, doctor’s appointments, etc., and commit to that schedule as best as possible,” she says. If you make studying part of your weekly routine, you’ll find it easier to get into the right mindset so you can get the most out of those regular study sessions.

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Set notifications on your phone to signal when you need to prepare to study and when you should actually begin studying.

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Emergencies and unplanned events that take priority inevitably come up from time to time. But that doesn’t mean canceling your study session entirely; instead, move your designated study time to a different slot on your calendar.

Break it up

Although you should avoid cramming, studying for an hour or two the day before a quiz or exam can still be a good idea. In fact, if you space out your study sessions across a week before a test and review the material or problem sets each time, you are more likely to understand and retain what you’re learning. The same goes for researching an essay: trying to find, read, and synthesize all your sources for a paper in a single day is usually the path to information overload. 

So try to break your studying into chunks. If you have to set alarms not just to start studying but also to remind you to take breaks or call it quits for the day (or night), do it! You’ll keep stress to a manageable level, avoid burnout, and be better prepared to apply what you’ve practiced and memorized in class or on an exam.

Set your boundaries

Success Coach John R. also suggests that if you want to study effectively and you live with family, friends, or roommates, be sure to “communicate your study needs to others, whether that be your partner or other family members, to help set expectations for yourself and others.”

Part of this might mean asking loved ones to respect closed doors or quiet time in your designated study space. It may also require asking partners or children to take on certain chores or other responsibilities when you need to focus.

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Feeling guilty when you need to study but loved ones want to play? Try scheduling study, reading, or quiet time as a family—and enjoy fun breaks together too!

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Making these requests can be truly difficult. After all, none of us wants to be a burden on others, and sacrificing family or social time can feel heartbreaking. So remind yourself why you want to complete your degree; this will help you prioritize. Remember: you deserve time for yourself, and achieving your goals is worth your effort and energy!

Choose your reading method

Many of us were taught or came to believe that simply reading a text over and over would somehow improve our understanding and recall of that information. But learning scientists have found that engaging actively with a reading assignment—such as creating questions and then answering them—is crucial for authentic reading comprehension as you study.

One reading strategy to try is known as THIEVES, and it’s a great way to preview an assigned chapter or text before sitting down to read it in preparation for class or an exam. It’s also an effective technique for skimming research articles or books to determine whether they’d be relevant to an essay you’re writing. Here’s what to look for:

  • Title
  • Headings
  • Introduction
  • Every first sentence
  • Visuals and/or Vocabulary
  • End (i.e., concluding section or paragraph)

Success Coach Manager N’Digo K. further recommends the SQ3R method to get the most out of a reading assignment:

  • Survey: First, preview the reading by skimming for headings, bold words, and diagrams to determine whether and what you need to read.
  • Query: Before reading, ask yourself questions about each section and about the topic more broadly.
  • Read: Read through the whole assignment quickly but carefully, looking for answers to the questions you posed in the previous step.
  • Recite/Recall: Now that you’ve read the material, review your questions, answer them, and ask new ones that arise. Write down notes as needed, such as where to find important information in the reading.
  • Review: Reread important sections slowly, and read through your notes. For extra benefit, try reading them aloud.

Revise your notes

Rewriting the notes you took during class, especially by hand, can help you better grasp the information and recall details later, such as during a discussion or exam. Try rewriting them longhand and neatly, and supplement them with notes from your assigned reading.

Adding visuals, such as sketching and labeling diagrams, can also improve your memory.

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If your professors provide a study guide or practice problem sets, use them! They can help you identify topics or details that require a bit more of your focus.

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Teach to learn

Faculty will tell you that one of the most rewarding aspects of teaching is getting to learn the material on a deep level. So apply the same concept when studying: try teaching the material to a study group or even to an empty room. Verbalizing the information can help you clarify details and uncover gaps in your knowledge. Recording yourself and then listening to your recording later, such as during a walk or your commute to and from work, can help you remember the material even better.

We hope the strategies above will give you a solid foundation for your new and improved study toolkit. Try one or two techniques at a time to see what works and what doesn’t; then, replace the strategies that aren’t effective with new ones. Soon, you’ll build a study routine that you can depend on in any class—and all the way to graduation!