10 tips for students transferring or returning to school

1. Develop a network

One key to successfully returning to study is to develop a network of friends and acquaintances on campus. Although it may seem that the campus is entirely inhabited by fresh faced 18 year old students, there are many older students studying here.

Non-traditional aged students frequently fit their classes and study time around work and family commitments and may not spend a great deal of time on campus. Those who are studying part time may spend even less time on campus. Apart from the pleasant social aspects of having friends on campus, you need to develop a group of people with whom you can discuss lectures and assignments, collaborate on difficult problems, share references or borrow or swap notes if you miss a class. Colleagues can also be an important source of support when you don't understand concepts and need extra help or reassurance.

Make a positive effort to meet new people and develop a list of phone numbers in the first two weeks of semester. Attend faculty welcomes and other orientation activities. Greet people whom you recognize from your classes when you meet them on campus.

2. Explore

Important information about course structure, organization and assessment issues is given in early lectures. The first few weeks are the best time to meet other people in your course and academic staff in your area.

Find the location of your faculty office. Find a place in the library where you feel comfortable to work.

Check out the sports teams, the Student Union Building, the cafeteria, the fitness center, and Student Support Services offices.

Don't just come to SMU to go to your class and then go home. Use the facilities, enjoy the atmosphere. The more time you spend on campus, the more you will start to feel a part of the place. Remember, campus is your place too.

3. Plan your time

Time Management is a crucial issue for all students, but particularly for non-traditional aged students who are often juggling study with work and family commitments.

A day planner or schedule can be a useful aid to help keep track of your time. List work commitments, other important commitments, and classes. Then determine what time is available for study. Whatever course you study, there are routine tasks which need to be completed every week: preparation for lectures, preparation and/or completion of labs or assignments, required readings, and review of lecture materials. Ideally, you should list all of these tasks on your weekly timetable. Assignments, essays, and time spent studying for exams are extra tasks which need additional time.

Spend a similar amount of time each week on each subject. Diaries or weekly and daily "to do" lists are also useful aids to help you stay on track and stick to a plan. Whatever system you use, listing tasks in writing is a form of commitment to completing them.

Think about how you learn best. Do you prefer to work early in the morning or late at night? Are you happy to juggle several pieces of work at one time or are you more comfortable working on one essay at a time. Be realistic about your preferences. Don't plan to get up early if you know you'll never get out of bed and don't plan to study after dinner if you always fall asleep on the couch by 8.30.

Rather than wasting small chunks of time, use them for completing minor study tasks. There is a common perception that you need a large spread of uninterrupted time to achieve worthwhile study, but there are many tasks which fit quite well into the spaces between your classes. You can use this time to read, study, or even complete one problem. Break large tasks down into segments which are easily achievable. Suit the time to the task. Always be ready to make the most of good quality time -when you know you will concentrate well and be able to work. Save this time for thinking and writing or focused reading.

Learn to prioritize. You can't do everything, but you can always do something. Think about what is the most important task you need to get done, in the time available. Set private deadlines for assignments which are ahead of the true ones. This way you have some leeway if family emergencies, work deadlines or illness strikes.

You can't work flat out on your studies all semester. Studying for a degree is a long haul and you need the support of your family over that time. Although study may appear to take over your life when assignments and exams are imminent, at quieter times during the semester your family deserve more priority. Allocate time to spend with your family, and make sure that there are times you can relax without feeling guilty. If you are well organized, it is possible to fit in several study blocks over the weekend while still including family time.

4. Embrace technology

If you're not comfortable using computers or surfing the internet, then returning to school provides a wonderful opportunity for you to upgrade your skills. Computer technology is used extensively throughout the SMU for teaching, learning and accessing resources. Many departments now put much of their course materials and handouts on-line and e-mail is becoming a preferred method of communicating with academics within the university. Increasingly you will also be expected to access on-line research sources to support your essays and some subjects require you to complete on-line tutorials.

Take time to practice using the library search engines for any literature reviews you will need to do for papers. Consider the following:

  • What are the most commonly used search terms within your area of study?
  • What are the main journals or books in your area?
  • What data bases are most relevant to your area of study?
  • Learn to bookmark the most important on-line journals and sites for your area of study.

5. Adjust expectations

Returning to study is a wonderful opportunity to think, learn and expand your knowledge. As a non-traditional aged student, you will typically have very high expectations of yourself and want to get high grades.

At the same time, you need to be realistic about what is expected of you, what you expect of yourself and what is possible. Most students undergo a transition process in adjusting to university life. You may initially feel frustrated by a lack of direction or explicit expectations or with limited contact with faculty. At the same time you may be grappling with the discourse of a new discipline.

Learn to value your own achievements and don't judge your progress solely on the basis of the grades you receive. Non-traditional aged students generally have more life experience and are willing to take risks and contribute to discussion.

Allow yourself time to settle into your new study regime and learn new skills. Don't try to write the definitive article or produce your life work when 1000 words are all that is required. High expectations and goals are great, but being a perfectionist and having unachievable goals will very quickly demoralize you and bring this exciting process to a halt.

6. Stay focused

Rather than becoming anxious and getting lost in the detail of your course, try to see the "big picture" of how your course fits together as a whole.

Focus on the objectives for each of your subjects. Examine your course outlines very carefully and try to determine how the topics fit in with the course objectives.

  • What are you expected to be able to know or do, at the end of the course?
  • What are the key issues or content areas in this subject?
  • What is the logic of the way the classes are organized?
  • How do the different topics link together?
  • What assessment tasks will be required of you?
  • When are assessments due?

It's not unusual to lose motivation at some stage during your studies. Everybody gets bored with study and with putting the rest of their lives on hold while they complete their degrees. At such times it is useful to revisit your reasons for deciding to study. Focus on why you are doing this course or subject. Writing a list of your goals and current problems can sometimes help you to regain perspective.

7. Acknowledge changes

Attending SMU will potentially bring changes to your life. Talk to your family, partner or others you live with and let them know what attending school will involve for you. Let them know about your time schedules, your busy times, your need for quiet times, and your need for support (or even the occasional nagging). If they are fully informed, they are more likely to feel part of the process and will be in a better position to support you.

The timetable already mentioned is a good way to share your study with those close to you. Point out the changes it will involve and the times you will meet commitments, join with them and still be the same person they know and love!

8. Reward yourself

In college it can be hard to gauge your progress. You may work for long periods of time without any feedback from faculty. In some subjects, there may be little assessment apart from the end of semester exams. At times you will undoubtedly feel frustrated by this apparent lack of structure, guidelines or feedback and with the limited contact with faculty.

Reward yourself for adhering to your time schedule, submitting work on time, understanding a complex theoretical concept, participating in an oral presentation or simply for keeping on top of your work load, balancing work commitments and your family life and coping with the demands of a university course.

Take the opportunity to share your successes and achievements with the people who are important to you. Make the completion of a difficult study task the basis for a family celebration. In many ways, you are not competing against the other students, but striving to find your own time and space to make progress in your chosen course of study. Recognize the progress you make and remember to give yourself credit for your achievements.

9. Stay in touch

Faculty, although busy with teaching and administrative commitments, are interested in your progress through the course. It's important to let them know if you are having problems or need an extension or special consideration. If you fail to submit work or stop attending classes, they will have no idea what has happened to you, and may assume you have dropped out. If you need to contact one of them it is best to a make an appointment either directly by phone or e-mail, or through the departmental office.

10. Know where to get help

One of your first tasks should be to find the location of the various Student Support Services offices to check out what they have to offer by way of assistance.

Many students run into difficulties at some stage of their course. At SMU you are expected to be an independent learner, but that does not mean that you have to handle all of your problems on your own. There are lots of people on campus who can help you, but it's up to you to ask for assistance.

Other students in the course can often be a source of help and support if you are having problems with your work. Working collaboratively with others to solve problems or brainstorming ideas can benefit all members of the group.

If, after trying some of these strategies, you are still experiencing real difficulties with course content contact your lecturer or supervisor in the subject concerned.

Personal, emotional, health and financial problems can also impact on your study and affect your ability to keep up with the workload. Contact the counseling center at ext. 4371 for free, confidential, counseling services.

This information was adapted from information provided by the University of Queensland and the University of Melbourne