Study Tips/Academic Success from a Forever Student

As a working graduate student with a family, I have little time to spare time for studying and what time I have I must use efficiently. Reflecting back on my entire educational experience I have come up with a list of suggestions that can help students at any level to improve their study habits and achieve academic success.


Like most students, I find balancing the commitments of education, family, and work a daily challenge. Currently, I'm a working graduate student with a growing family and so I have little spare time for studying and what time I have I need to use efficiently. While the whole process of pursuing my nursing education has been stressful and mentally taxing, I believe this was the right path for me.

Reflecting back on this experience has made me ask myself, what advice would I pass to others who are just beginning their academic journey? I don't claim to be an "expert" in study skills or a straight A student my entire time in school, but I think that some of the lessons I've learned can help to support other students. Whether you're an undergraduate or graduate student, pre-licensure or post-licensure, this advice is for anyone at any level. Here are just a few things that can hopefully they can help you with studying and achieving academic success.

Academic Life - Establish a Schedule

Create a calendar

It can be paper calendar or electronic (I use a Google Calendar myself because it's organized and easier for me to read). Consider color-coding or establishing categories such as "School" "Work" "Appointments" etc. to keep things organized.

Don't forget to add (a) scheduled classes, (b) major paper/project due dates, © exam/test dates, and (d) scheduled study sessions (group or individual) for the entire module/semester.

Include your work schedule and other appointments/commitments on the calendar as well, so you don't accidentally overbook yourself.

Consider sharing the calendar with your support system (significant other, family, roommate, etc.) or post it in your home so that everyone knows where you will be and can see when you will not be available.

Attend Class

Treat school like it is a job

It may seem obvious, but school is like a job in that your attendance and active participation are required. You are paying good money for your education so why wouldn't you be there and trying to get every dollar out of it?

This is geared primarily towards students who are in a face-to-face (f2f) program, but students in hybrid or online programs need to be engaged and actively participating in their courses as well.

I'm sure we have all been in courses that have required minimal student participation, and maybe you could have just studied by reading the textbook but for most students, physically attending class puts students in a different frame of mind, promotes deeper understanding of content, and provides a better learning experience.

Identify Your Learning Style

Everyone learning needs are different, and only you will be able to determine what learning styles work best for you. You will not be able to change course assignments or how a class is taught, but you can change how you approach studying and thus improve your chances of success.

Complete a learning preference/style test

There are an unlimited number of free inventories/quizzes/tests available on the Internet to determine what your individual learning preferences. Take more than one test and see what it tells you. Are you a solitary or social learner? Do you prefer the abstract or that which is concrete/logical? Do you learn best from visual, aural, verbal or physical means?

Most people have more than one preference and armed with this information you can focus on using strategies that work for you.

Adequate Preparation and Capturing Content

Read before attending class

If you don't read before attending class, you will be spending most of the time trying to identify basic concepts that you should already be familiar with instead of clarifying more advanced concepts with the help of the instructor.

Have your course materials with you

Unless your instructor says, that you don't need to bring the textbook I recommend bringing it because you never know when you will need to look up a term or note from a particular section of the book while you are in class. You should also bring printouts of any PowerPoint lecture slides or other supplemental materials so you can follow along during the lecture. And common sense would dictate to please bring a pen, pencil and a piece of paper if you intend to write anything down. It is very distracting as a teacher to see students asking each other for pens and paper while I am trying to teach.

Take notes

I've heard many students say they don't need to take notes and perhaps for some this is true, but I think that if you don't take notes, you are likely to miss relevant content that may not be included in the supplemental materials (such as PowerPoint slides or handouts). Taking notes is highly individualized, some people handwrite them, and others type them, and some people write word-for-word while others only make bullet points. Don't forget that pictures or diagrams can be helpful as well.

Consider recording the lectures

Ask your instructor first but see if you can record the lecture so that you can play it back for later review. Some instructors may be uncomfortable with this or may only allow for audio recording, so it's important to ask first.


Find a partner or study group (if you learn best socially)

Identify individuals who have similar studying patterns and learning preferences early on during a course and establish study partnerships/groups. These peers don't necessarily need to be strong in the same content areas as you are (having different strengths can be helpful) but should have a similar philosophy on studying and learning preferences. Having a partner or group to be accountable to for studying can be useful for adhering to a schedule and ensuring that content gets covered adequately.

If you find working with a study partner or group distracting or you are not best as a social learner that is fine but make sure you remain self-motivated and hold yourself accountable for studying and completing coursework.

Schedule time to study

Set aside blocked time for studying (preferably each day) so that you can retain what you have learned and are not forced to cram the night before a big exam. Blocking out study time allows you to break content into smaller and more manageable pieces and improves the odds of adequate preparation.

Use a variety of mediums/sources

Just because you took lecture notes on your PowerPoint slides and read through your textbook doesn't mean that you can't use other sources to help supplement your learning.

Many textbooks offer access codes to online content such as videos, case studies, simulations, and supplemental articles that can help students to understand the content.

Don't be afraid to search the Internet for videos, podcasts, and other sources that may explain difficult concepts in a different but easier to understand way. Just make sure that the information provided is accurate and is congruent with what your textbook and instructor cover in the course.

For undergraduate and pre-licensure students, look for test preparation (ATI, HESI, NCLEX, etc.) and content-specific study books (medical/surgical nursing, nursing fundamentals, psychiatric/mental health nursing, etc.).

[*]For graduate and post-licensure students, look for board certification test preparation (AANA, AANP, ANCC, NLN, etc.) and content-specific study books (oncology/immunology, pediatric primary care, healthcare policy, and nursing administration).

Practice test questions and understand how to apply critical thinking and theory in different situations

Most licensure and board certification exams will ask you to use theory and critical thinking to apply specialty content in different areas then what you may have seen in class.

For example, the NCLEX may ask a question about nursing interventions for a recently post-partum patient who has just undergone a cholecystectomy and is on the inpatient medical/surgical unit. Or it may ask you about planning the homecare needs of a patient with paranoid schizophrenia. This kind of questioning addresses multiple content areas and requires that students use critical thinking to apply their knowledge in different settings.

Many nursing instructors will try to design exam questions in a similar format as to what you would see on a licensure or board certification exam. If you can practice learning how to answer these types of questions as a student, it will certainly help you following graduation.

Seeking Feedback/Communicating with Instructors

Participate in class and ask good questions

Whoever said, "there is no such thing as a stupid question" is a complete liar (in my opinion). If you are asking a question that (a) reflects a complete lack of prior preparation, (b) is unrelated to what is being discussed, or © is the same question that was just asked by another student and was already answered then those are stupid questions. It is insulting to your instructor and your classmates by asking these kinds of questions because it shows that you are not prepared and/or not paying attention to what is going on and delays further learning.

With that being said, we all have moments where we have missed something that someone just said or struggle with a basic concept, so it isn't a cardinal sin to ask a question like this once in a while but don't make it a habit. By participating in class and asking thoughtful and clarifying questions, it helps to promote your learning and may address the concerns of your peers who may be having the very same questions.

If you find that you are struggling to understand something after the instructor has attempted to explain it fully then consider asking to meet with them after class or during off hours so that it doesn't slow down the entire class.

Go to office hours

I'm a firm believer in students attending at least one office hours session if only to meet the instructor individually, introduce yourself and see how you are performing in the class (especially if you are in a large group and the instructor is unlikely to know you personally). Attending office hours lets the instructor know that you are serious about the class and are an adult learner who is responsible for their education. If you are having trouble with a particular subject area, then you can use this time to get further explanation or if you're having some issues with the course, then you could ask for their advice on how to succeed.

Another benefit to attending office hours is that if a problem or situation occurs later on during the course the instructor is likely to remember you for a good reason and this can be helpful for facilitating a solution.

Consider the risks and benefits before reporting a problem with an instructor or course

This is not to say that we as instructors are infallible, but we are recognized as experts in our content area and do have some latitude to teach the course how we see fit (within reason of course). If you have a disagreement with an instructor or problem with any aspect of a course take a moment to carefully consider the following:

  1. What is the actual problem?
  2. Is this an issue with the instructor? The college/institution/university? Or the student?
  3. What sort of solution am I realistically hoping for as a result of bringing up this issue?
  4. Do the benefits of addressing the issue outweigh the risks that can come from a negative fallout/response?

If after considering these questions you strongly believe that the problem must be addressed then begin by speaking with the instructor first. I suggest asking to meet privately because discussing it in class is likely to illicit comments from peers, which may or may not be helpful, and make the instructor feel that they are being attacked. When you bring this issue up to the instructor privately try to use "I" statements versus "you" statements and give them the chance to discuss it with you. Keep your tone calm and use professional language at all times. If you feel that the discussion is not progressing forward or is becoming uncomfortable, it is best to thank them for their time and end it professionally.

Lastly, if the issue is serious and it is not resolved after talking with the course instructor consider speaking with the department chair or academic dean but realize this may not lead to a permanent solution and could create tension with you and the instructor.

To be clear, I'm not encouraging students to avoid discussing problems or sensitive issue with instructors but consider the above-mentioned questions and make sure to reflect upon yourself and see if and how you may be contributing to this problem. We as human beings are hardwired to avoid seeing our faults but conflict resolution requires that we take a long look at ourselves and see where we might be able to improve how we handle situations.

Home and Work Life

Discuss your academic goals and scheduling needs with your family, friends, and employer

Most students are likely to have commitments at home and work in addition to what they have at school and having a supportive home and work environment can make or break a student. You need to have an honest conversation with your family and employer as soon as possible so they know what you are doing in school and how this may necessitate some scheduling changes. These conversations can be difficult, but it is best to have them ahead of time so that everyone can prepare appropriately.

For example, don't tell your employer that because you are only a part-time student and taking one class that your work schedule will remain unchanged only to then ask for every Friday off and a half-day on Mondays.
Another example, if you have a class across town scheduled on Tuesdays at 1:00 you should talk with your family to see if you can arrange to have someone else pick up your child off of the kindergarten school bus at 12:30 on that day.

Use to-do lists, reminders, and other memory supporting devices

I already talked about the importance of making a schedule but don't forget about using to-do lists and reminders so that you won't miss deadlines and other important commitments in the various spheres of your life. I use my phone and electronic calendar for most things, but I still like a handwritten to-do list so that I can physically check off tasks as I complete them.

Take some time for yourself and your family/friends

Being in school can be extremely stressful, and we all need to mentally and physically decompress from time to time. Be sure to take some time for to relax by yourself, do a hobby or activities that you enjoy, and spend time with family and friends.

The time you spend away from family and friends while in school can put a strain on these relationships and so it is important to have quality time with these people and remind them how much you appreciate them and their support.

Case in point, I would not be where I am right now without all of the help I have gotten from my wife and my family. My wife has worked more hours so that I could return to school and has sacrificed a lot of time away from me so that we could see this dream accomplished. My extended family has accommodated my schedule and remained supportive in every way possible during this whole process, for which I remain grateful. I try to make sure that I tell my wife and family how thankful I'm for them often and promise to return the same support when I'm finished with school.
I realize that not everyone will have this level of support but try to thank everyone in your life who has supported you along the way and remind them that this is only for a limited time and your achievements have been possible because of them.

Stay mentally and physically healthy

The key to good mental and physical health and promoting wellness as student means ensuring adequate nutrition, sleep, and exercise. These are often the things that students will sacrifice to maintain academic success but can have detrimental consequences. Talk with your primary care provider (PCP) to make sure you are in the best shape you can be medically and seek the services of a counselor if you are experiencing any mental health problems or are struggling to cope with the stress and anxiety of balancing school, home, and work.

Communication is key

Let's face it, we are all human beings and make mistakes from time to time. We might be a day late paying a bill or earn a lower grade than we would have liked on an exam because we didn't study hard enough, it happens. As cliché as it sounds, the key to academic success is keeping open lines of communication with your instructor, peers, and your support system outside of school (family, friends, employer, etc.).

cjcsoon2bnp has been a registered nurse (RN) for six years and his specialties are emergency nursing and psychiatric/mental health nursing. He recently completed a MSN in Nursing Education degree and is currently pursuing a post-graduate certificate in family nurse practitioner (FNP) studies. He also teaches as an adjunct clinical instructor and is interested in problem-based learning, ethical dilemmas in nursing, and promoting success in the workplace through professional mentorship.

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cjcsoon2bnp, MSN, RN, NP

8 Articles; 1,156 Posts

Specializes in Emergency Nursing.

I would also like to add that students should try out a few different study tools to see what works best for them. I like studying with flashcards and have found them helpful in the past but I'm not good at making them (I get too focused on making them perfect) so I don't often use them as a tool. I'm pretty good at making typed study guide outlines and so that is one of the tools I often use. Outlines, flashcards, diagrams, mind-maps, videos, and tape recordings are just a few tools that students should try. Another thing to keep in mind is that specific tools may work best for certain types of content (e.g. diagrams for anatomy, flashcards for laboratory values) so don't be afraid to switch it up.

!Chris :specs: