By Shannon N. Goff 2017-06-15 12:58:09
Improvement begins with “I” Study Guide » Pursuing education goals while juggling work, family and everything else can feel like a high-wire act. Let these study tips help you maintain balance. In today’s job market, higher education of some level is becoming a necessity. Research shows that over the last five years, 38% of organizations have raised their educational requirements and more employers are hiring college-educated candidates for positions for which a high school diploma had once been sufficient credentials. Higher education requirements are now expected for school nutrition administrators at the district and state levels, too, with the implementation of the federal government’s Professional Standards rules in 2015. Times, they are a-changing, and individuals who left the school yard years ago are diving back into their studies. When I graduated from the University of Maryland in 2014, the parent-funding and loan-borrowing ended as soon as my hand clutched that diploma. I was told I could either move back to the homestead in North Carolina or find a job. Fast. I immediately applied for work and feel fortunate to have earned a spot on the Communications team at SNA Headquarters. Now, three years later, I find myself itching to go back to school, buying entrance exam practice books and researching how adults with full-time jobs and persistent responsibilities could possibly balance home and work and school. Having already discovered how unbelievably helpful SNA members can be, I reached out to a few regarding current and past efforts to further their education as an adult. My mission: find out study habits and firsthand experiences both for myself and for SN readers who find the idea of going back to school as an adult to be exciting, scary, stimulating and impossible, all at once. Finding Order in Chaos The biggest challenge I faced in my first round of collegiate life—and one I face daily—is organization. I turned to someone who clearly understands the value of organization. Jeremy West, CDM, SNS, is the director of operations, food and nutrition services for Jefferson County (Colo.) Public Schools—a brand-new job he’s had only since last March. He’s also the Colorado SNA 2016-17 President. And the ANC 2017 Program Chair. And he’s pursuing his master’s degree. Oh, and he’s also a husband and father of five! West starts by creating and maintaining separate calendars for work and school. Then he loads all the assignment deadlines into his academic calendar the week before class even starts. “This makes me review the syllabus and become familiar with the work ahead and the due dates,” West attests. “As I complete each assignment, I check it off (virtually or physically, depending on the type of calendar).” He also advises creating mini due dates for required readings, as well as archiving helpful material. “Save assignments and reference materials electronically or in a binder for future use,” he suggests, adding that this tip has allowed him to access and use one reference for multiple assignments across different classes. But Who’s Got the Time? Of course, my personal organization issues go hand-in-hand with another challenge that gives me pause when contemplating going back to school: time management. To say I’m a chronic procrastinator would be putting it mildly. Beth Mincemoyer Egan, RD, SNS, who has managed a distance learning program focused on child nutrition at Pennsylvania State University, is the perfect person to approach for advice. Egan, who is also the Nutrition and Research Committee chair on SNA’s Board of Directors, has vast experience on both sides of the desk. In managing her own study time, she gets very focused in the lead-up to an exam or deadline. “Set aside even just 30 minutes to review notes and readings, and do a bit each day, so it’s easier to remember instead of trying to cram everything in at the last minute,” Egan advises, reflecting, “For the SNS and RD exam, I prepared several months in advance.” She suggests creating a specific “study schedule,” spending some amount of time each day—or at least several days each week—working through the material. Start working on the hardest material earliest. Spend the last 5 to 10 minutes of each block reviewing what you were just studying. Remember, says Egan, that when you’re working on a higher-level degree, you may not be able to read everything you are assigned. To address this challenge in her own studies, she took a class on speed-reading. But she also recommends an alternative: “Work to figure out which articles are most important to the professor.” And that brings up another key piece of advice from Egan. “Listen to your professor,” she urges. “We give clues as to what is most important—things we say multiple times or things we put on a quiz or worksheet. Also, if there are learning objectives for a course or lesson, use them to guide your study.” Finding Focus There’s a third component that goes hand-in-hand with time management and organization. How do part-time adult learners stay focused on what they are trying to learn and understand? This is a topic I was most interested to learn about from Gina Goff, RN. (While she is not an SNA member, she is my mama!) When Goff was starting her career, “nursing school” was only a two-year program, which translates to an associate degree today. Years later, in 2008, she had to go back to school to earn a bachelor’s degree in order to keep her job as the nurse manager of a hospital’s endoscopy department. A few years ago, she decided to invest in higher education once again; this time for her master’s. When you consider that she balances that pursuit with a full-time nursing job and mothering a teenager with autism, you can see why I consider my mom to be a bona fide super hero. Each week, she must write at least two short essays to demonstrate comprehension of the assigned reading. Some weeks feature additional projects, frequently a 5- to 15-page research paper. Although my brother Adam is high-functioning, “like many autistic individuals, he does not respect social boundaries and totally ignores social cues,” notes Goff. “So, when I’m busy reading or typing, he will make sure I cannot ignore him if he has something to say. I have to stop what I’m doing and listen.” And that means giving her son completely undivided attention. “It’s hard to tell him to knock it off, because he doesn’t always understand there are other things to be done and this is my time.” Goff regiments her study schedule as much as possible to maintain focus. For example, she has designated “paper-writing weekends,” so the whole family (even Adam) knows that she needs her study time. Goff also turns to family for their support. “My husband is usually out of town during the week for work,” she notes. “So when he is home on the weekend, he is very helpful keeping Adam entertained or busy so I can concentrate on my papers.” She offers another helpful hint: “I have a wonderful device called noise-cancelling headphones. I’ll put a classical music station on Pandora and play it low, so I can concentrate, but cannot hear the noise outside of the headphones whatsoever.” Beth Egan shares other concentration tips to help busy adult learners make the most of evenings and weekends. She’s an advocate of the Cornell method of taking notes. “It starts by drawing a vertical line about two inches in from the right side of the page. Take notes on the space to the left of the page, then use the narrow, right column to write questions, key words, etc., to help you study,” she details. “You can then cover up the left side of the page and ask yourself questions from the right side as you go through the material.” Mnemonics are another strategy Egan finds effective in the memorizing of lists. Come up with a word or sentence that is the first letter of each thing to remember. One variation on this technique is to substitute your memorization list for the lyrics of a catchy song. While some of these are time-honored approaches to staying focused, Egan urges today’s students to observe one iron-clad rule: “Stay off social media when you are studying!” These distractions not only consume tremendous amounts of time (along with online games), but they interrupt your focus, making it impossible to gain momentum. Don’t multi-task. Commit yourself to the task at hand for a designated period. Then, you can take a break, rewarding yourself with a snack, abbreviated social media time or a walk. Set a timer to keep yourself honest! Creating an effective study space is another helpful approach to aid in concentration. Avoid places with known distractions, including conversation, television or a comfy couch. Know your triggers and which locales are and are not effective for you. For example, some people can work well at a coffee shop, where the hubbub fades into the background as white noise. Others prefer the tomb-like quiet of the local library. Use Your Words A support system is essential, whether it be built through family, friends or coworkers. Don’t overlook the connections you make with classmates, either. After all, while some friends are experts in the role of cheerleader or confidante, those who can help best with your educational goals are likely to be those jumping through identical hoops. Try to get over any natural shyness or introverted tendencies. Classmates can be an excellent resource to help you understand the material. (And, who knows? They may become bosom buddies as you bond through this experience.) To this point, Egan suggests forming study groups within your class. This can be particularly useful in splitting up reading assignments and pooling your notes. Each individual or small group can become expert resources on the specific materials selected and help teach the others. West offers an important postscript to this notion of support and community: Don’t be afraid to ask for help. “Reach out to the professor or fellow students or even an outside content expert in your life,” he urges, citing personal experience. “When I was struggling with a math class, I communicated frequently with my professor and several family members or friends who had math talents.” From Chalkboards to SMART Boards My all-time favorite study tool is flashcards. They’re easy to create, small enough to take anywhere and applicable to nearly every subject or class. Simply take a pack of index cards and write important terms or formulas on one side, and then concise definitions or annotations on the other side. You can use them alone or with a partner or a group. But while flashcards will always be a personal go-to aid, the most reliable tool I’ve found in my personal academic pursuits is technology. There are more digital resources available today than ever before, and most of them can be found within a few quick strokes of the keyboard. I recommend using exclusive “companion websites” available through textbook publishers like Pearson, Palgrave/Macmillan and Houghton Mifflin, which provide access codes with the purchase of their publications. These sites contain additional materials and engaging activities, such as quizzes, designed to help you better understand and absorb the content. Unsure how to access this tool or if your textbook offers it? Simply type the title of the textbook and its author(s) into your browser. The search results also will yield a bevy of course notes and study guides generated by other students across the web. It’s the ultimate in crowdsourcing, but you should take care to check the credibility of what you find. In a similar vein, many of today’s students are turning to online digital textbooks, instead of carting around the multi-pound print versions. “If I have a choice between a hard copy textbook or an online version, I always go with the online version,” insists Jeremy West. “It’s not only less expensive, but it is searchable by key words. This saves countless hours of flipping through pages hoping that one particular phrase or passage jumps out at you.” Gina Goff is another fan of e-books, which she can keep on her home computer and her Kindle. Although she has learned that the physical act of highlighting passages helps her to retain better, she likes the flexibility of printing some things out and reading others on her screen. “I can take material to work to read on breaks or while waiting to pick my son up at school.” Maintaining Momentum Trying to find the right course to get started? Motivation is something that can require constant cultivation. Content is key. Beyond the required fundamentals for your program, what will keep you interested and fuel your will to study? Goff stays encouraged by picking classes that speak to her personal interests. “For instance,” she begins, “I took a class on disparities in healthcare and used primary healthcare for autistic adults as my patient population. I have a personal interest in this, because my son is 18. Researching this subject not only helped me academically and professionally, but also helped me personally to prepare for my son’s future. I even received a 98 on the final paper!” Founder of America’s Meal, a K-12 school foodservice training and consulting firm, JoAnne Robinette, MSA, SNS, received two college degrees after she started working in school nutrition. Aspiring to be a school foodservice director, she worked toward her bachelor’s degree in case an opportunity arose, and was then inspired to attain her master’s. “I discovered that going to college energized me as a person,” she shares. “I was not just a mom or a lunch lady. I was a person whose opinions mattered.” Robinett’s academic experiences illustrate another point about motivation: Know when you just don’t have it. It’s okay to quit, if what you’re doing doesn’t make you happy. Robinett had the opportunity to pursue her doctoral degree in a school nutrition-specific program. But it didn’t fill her with the same energy or “good feeling.” Still, she’s quick to draw the distinction between motivating yourself to do something difficult, but rewarding, and trying to achieve a goal that’s not right for you, at least not right now. “If you think you want to do it, but you’re not sure, just take one class. Just promise to try one. That success might lead to your next class and before you know it, a degree!” Practice Patience There’s one last element that may be the most important of all: patience. Being an adult learner with a full-time job means that your educational goals may take quite a while to achieve. Be patient with yourself. Enjoy the rewards along the way, both those related to the learning process and those in the rest of your life. Gina Goff says she’s tried to keep this attitude top of mind. “I can take two classes at once and get finished sooner, but I am afraid it will consume way too much of my time and I’ll have to sacrifice too many hours with my family. It took me 27 years to begin this endeavor, so I think I can be a little patient now.” Jeremy West’s closing thoughts should be particularly resonant with School Nutrition readers. “Hey School Nutrition Professionals: We got this! My job working in child nutrition is way more time-consuming and challenging than my school work. If I can survive a school year in K-12, I know I can survive post-secondary school!” THE 7 ELEMENTS OF SUCCESSFUL STUDYING » Organization » Time Management » Focus » Support System » Technology » Motivation » Patience BONUS WEB CONTENT Study Guide We had more tips than pages to print them! For additional advice on walking the adult-learner tightrope—including prepping for the SNS exam—check out this month’s online extras. Visit www.schoolnutrition.org/snmagazinebonus to access Shannon Goff is advertising and production associate for School Nutrition.
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