Self-Study Tips for Adults in CE Classes

Continuing education classes (CE classes) are a terrific way to further your career, jump into a new field, or bone up in an area where you’ve struggled. However, as Rodney Dangerfield once learned in the classic comedy Back to School, it’s not easy returning to class after a long layoff. Technology has transformed the educational experience for students. Balancing studying with the rest of life’s demands, from full-time work to caring for children or aging parents, can be challenging.


Still, it’s a worthwhile pursuit. Every year more than 60 million Americans enroll in work-related CE courses, studying subjects as varied as real estate, accounting, insurance, cosmetology and more. These adult continuing education students may take classes through local community colleges or online, at a college extension campus, or through a for-profit university.

Making the most of your CE classes online means bringing a disciplined, practical approach to adult schooling. These top study techniques for adults will help you work smarter so you can be successful in your continued education.

The Best Way to Study for an Adult Student

Set Up a Study

Remember when you did your homework at the desk in your room every night after school? Find a similar spot in your house where you can work undisturbed on your assignments. Don’t use the cluttered desk where you pay your bills or the kitchen table. It’s too easy to get distracted by an unpaid utility bill or this morning’s dirty dishes. Instead, carve out an entirely new space to study, and keep your books and other class materials there so you never have to go searching through the house to find them. Finally, if you have small children or grandchildren, make sure they understand this space is off-limits. You don’t want sticky fingers pawing through your study guides.


Find a Study Partner

You’ve undoubtedly heard people say you’re more likely to stick with a fitness plan if you enlist a friend with the same goals, since you’ll keep each other accountable. The same is true for studying. Set up study dates with someone else from your class. You may not be motivated to study on your own, but you won’t want to stand up your partner. As a bonus, you may find that you have complementary skills; you can help your partner with something they don’t quite grasp and vice versa.

Set Limits With Family Members

When you make a commitment to continuing education, you deserve the opportunity to pursue your goal to the fullest. While this doesn’t mean you can shirk your home duties, it does mean setting boundaries with family members. This might mean establishing an hour each night when you can slip away undisturbed to study. Barring an emergency, your family is not to bother you during this time, since the best way to study is without distraction.

Involve the People Around You

Say you have a big test the next morning but you also need to make dinner for your family and fold two loads of laundry. This is one time when multitasking will help you. Have a family member quiz you or read passages to you from your class text while finishing the other task. As an added bonus, if you have elementary-aged children, this may help them bone up on their own reading skills.

Take Advantage of Technology

There have been many strides in classroom technology over the past decade and that includes a plethora of aids and enhancements for studying. Depending on what area you’re studying, you should be able to find:

  • Online study aids, many of which include interactive quizzes
  • Apps related to your field of study or perhaps even based on your textbook
  • E-books with annotations from others who have studied the same subject
  • Textbook websites with annotated notes
  • Curriculum and reading lists from other, similar courses to serve as a supplement to your own class

Find Helpful Apps

Time-management apps can be a huge assistance for mature students. Because you’re likely older than the average student and have a job and family to worry about, your schedule is pressed for time. Use time-management apps to make sure you’re not wasting effort on things that aren’t as important in the grand scheme of things. Time-management apps can help you find an hour in each day to review your notes or work on a paper. You will struggle if you wait until the last minute to do your assignments, so it’s best to manage your time well ahead.

Set Goals


You should go into your class knowing exactly what you want to get out of it, which will help you figure out where to focus your studying and how much effort to put into it. Your goals depend on your motivation for taking the class. Are you required to take CE classes as part of your job? Are you looking for a promotion? Are you simply interested in the subject but have no intention of going into the field? The answers to those questions will tell you where to direct your efforts and how hard you need to work.

Keep Your Study Sessions Relatively Short

No one can concentrate on a single subject for hours upon end. Breaking up your studying into small daily sessions rather than one weekly marathon, you’re much more likely to retain what you’ve learned. Plus, if you’re interacting with your textbook and other class materials each day, you’ll feel more comfortable going into class because you’ve been immersed in the subject matter.

Go the Extra Mile

If you’re working on a problem set that you only begin to understand near the end, don’t finish the last equation and be done with it. Instead, remember that you’re taking this class because you genuinely want to learn. Do another few problems until you feel confident you’ve mastered the skill. Sometimes getting the most out of an assignment means doing more, even if you’re not going to get credit for it.

Studying Tips for Adult Learners

Copy Over Your Notes

Class notes are valuable resources, but sometimes just reading them over doesn’t help you absorb their meaning. Instead, try transcribing them in a new format. For instance, if you took notes by hand during class, type them onto your computer. Don’t copy them word for word, either. Try to say it in a different manner, as this will help you further absorb the information being discussed in the notes.

Review New Material After Every Class

You’ve probably heard the expression “use it or lose it.” This is especially true for CE classes. If you don’t take a few minutes to go over what you learned in class, that new knowledge will quickly be pushed out of your head by worries about an upcoming work project, a sick child, or any of the other daily problems that occupy adults’ brains. By taking five minutes after class to review and reflect on what you learned, you’re saving yourself time later when the information is not as fresh in your brain and you’ll struggle to understand what exactly you wrote down in your notes.

Make a Word List for Each Class

A word list is a listing of key words and phrases that are important to the subject being taught. For example, a course on insurance terms might have things like “deductible,” “insurance fraud” and “benefit period” on the word list. Word lists are a great way to study smart because they’re put together by you, the student, and not the teacher, which forces you to listen carefully and recognize which terms are key to the subject matter.

Go 20 Minutes On, Two Minutes Off


Our attention spans only last so long, even when you enjoy the subject you’re studying. Don’t try to force it. Build in breaks to every study session. After your break, you’ll come back more alert and more engaged. Try the 20/2 method: 20 minutes of studying, followed by two minutes off. During your off time you might surf the Web, do jumping jacks, or brew a cup of tea. Just make sure you’re back on task when your two-minute buzzer sounds.

Try Out Sample Tests

Who says you have to wait until exam day to test yourself on your knowledge? Use back-of-the-book sample tests or devise your own based on the material you have studied so far. Another option is to look online for tests posted for similar courses. Take the test a few days before your real test is administered and you can figure out which areas you need to study more.

Practice Meditation

You don’t have to be a yogi to enjoy the benefits of meditation. A few minutes of quiet reflection, or just a couple of deep, long breaths can be enough to clear your mind and help you focus on your studying.

Use All Support Systems

Many continuing education courses are associated with community colleges, trade schools, campus extensions or other institutes of higher learning, and lots of them have departments dedicated to helping students. Take full advantage of this. If your school has a writing center, take a rough draft of your upcoming paper in for review. Likewise, if they offer tutoring, go sign up for help in any areas in which you need extra assistance.

Play Around Sometimes

No student can be a success without a little downtime. While studying is hugely important, it’s also not the only thing you should do with your time. Enjoy outings with your family. Continue going to the gym. Give your all at your job. Classes should not redefine your life but rather be an enjoyable part of it.

Must-have Study Skills for Adults

Experiment With Different Learning Methods

Try diverse, different and sometimes fun approaches to find out what works for you, such as:

  • Using pneumonic devices
  • Making up songs based on key study concepts
  • Wearing uncomfortable clothes and sitting in an uncomfortable chair to keep you alert
  • Rewarding yourself when you achieve certain goals

Don’t Procrastinate

Easier said than done, for sure, but avoiding procrastination can also avoid a plethora of pitfalls in your adult continuing education. When you put off an assignment until the last minute, you risk:

  1. Turning in sloppy, unpolished work
  2. Missing a deadline because you didn’t finish on time
  3. Learning nothing from the assignment because you’re so frazzled just trying to finish it

Whenever possible, plan ahead for a big assignment. You’ll not only avoid the stress of staying up all night, but you’ll also retain more knowledge about your subject, which is the main goal of your class.

Keep Lists

If you worry about losing track of all the things you need to do, try making to-do lists that you update once a week. Use three columns to track your different tasks in your roles as a student, an employee, and a family member. Put even the smallest jobs on the list, such as “attending class” or “making kids’ lunches.” You’ll feel a sense of accomplishment when you check something off. The lists will ensure you don’t overlook something big when your mind is split among so many activities, such as a spouse’s birthday or big class assignment.

Be an Active Listener

During class, make sure you’re paying acute attention and picking up on important points. Go beyond note-taking to actively participating in class, asking questions to clarify anything you don’t understand. This will help you later when you return to your notes, helping avoid confusion about unfamiliar concepts.

Don’t Be Afraid to Ask for Help


Let’s face it, if you haven’t been in school for decades, you are going to hit a few roadblocks. Perhaps you don’t understand the electronic system for looking up books at the library, or you’re baffled by online study aids. Reach out for assistance rather than trying to figure things out yourself. There’s no shame in needing help. You’ll find that people are eager to explain or demonstrate solutions to your problem and you’ll save yourself time and frustration.

Model Good Study Behavior

Children take their studying tips from their parents. If you have a child in the house, try to model good study behavior, such as finishing assignments before they are due and completing all the assigned reading. Your children or grandchildren will learn from your hard work, becoming more likely to use those smart approaches themselves.

Apply Your Knowledge


You need to make your CE course a part of your daily life rather than just something you indulge in once a week, if you really want the knowledge to stick. Think of ways you can build on the things you’ve learned in class at work to reinforce what’s being taught and show the real-world application. You will remember a concept much better when you’ve actually experienced it rather than just been told about it.

Read, Then Review

Studies have shown that our brains don’t learn as quickly when we get older. Something you may have picked up in a snap decades ago may take longer to absorb today. That’s why cramming at the last minute should not be one of your study techniques. It’s much more effective to break your classwork into manageable chunks. For instance, say you’re assigned a chapter of reading each week. Instead of waiting until the night before class to crack the book, read a few pages every night and take notes. At the end of the week, look through your notes and skim over the chapter again. This will help you to retain the knowledge as you head into class.

Go With What Works for You

Optimal study skills for adults can mean different things for different people. One person might do just fine studying in a cluttered toddler’s room while “SpongeBob SquarePants” blares on the television; another might run screaming from the room without so much as finishing a sentence of assigned reading. That’s OK. Don’t judge yourself or other people on their study habits. Instead, note what does and does not work for you. Do more of the stuff that works and less of the stuff that doesn’t.

Eventually you’ll figure out the right mix and you’ll reap the benefits of a truly successful continuing education class experience.