• International Workplace
  • 13 June 2017

Back to the classroom: an insider view

What’s it like to return to formal study after a long break? What can you do to make it easier for yourself when you’re studying while you work? Heidi Thompson, Head of Learning and Development at International Workplace, provides some insights.

Studying again can bring about a multitude of emotions from excitement to fear. Whether the last time you studied was at school a few (or many) years ago – or more recently at university – studying at the same time as working is certainly a challenge.

I try to keep this in mind whenever I interact with our students at International Workplace, regardless of whether they are studying in the classroom or online.

I was particularly reminded of this last year when I finished a two-year course. Prior to that I hadn’t studied for 15 years and had to some extent forgotten what it was like to study and work. It was however a great experience; I enjoyed learning, meeting new people and expanding my experience and knowledge. 

The benefit of learning at as an adult is also the experience and knowledge that you can apply alongside it. You are no longer ‘forced’ to learn in the same way you might have felt at school. We have choice, and this gives a greater sense of achievement when seeing it through to the end and succeeding.

That aside one of the significant things I learnt during this time was reminder of what it is like to study again as an adult. This was very valuable to me as someone who also teaches.  It reminded me of how my learners feel and the additional support I can give them to enjoy their experience.

Unfortunately, it also reminded me of what a lazy student I can be and how I haven’t changed that much since all those years ago – last minute assignment writing doesn’t go with age and wisdom it seems!

To that end, I have put together some tips for anyone looking to study again, all of which are relevant no matter the length of your course.

1. Give yourself time. 

Ok this is pretty obvious and is easier said than done when working full time and maybe with a family and other commitments. That aside you will need time and will need to carve this out in your day.  What works best is to understand your optimum time for learning and how long it takes for you to lose concentration and become restless. For some this is getting up early and others working late – whatever works best for you?  But whatever it is, diarise it. You deserve to give yourself this time and should plan for it as you would any other important work you have to complete.

  • Develop weekly plans and review them regularly: assess how you are doing against your time-scaled plan.
  • When studying, get in the habit of beginning with the most difficult subject or task. Don’t keep putting it off.
  • Use your time wisely: conduct your eLearning and research for assignments when you have spare time, but set aside blocks of time to complete the assignments.

2. Find a suitable place to study. 

For me this was the kitchen table – I’m not sure why but I worked better here rather than tucked away out of sight. This won’t work for some people who may need silence. So find a spot that works for you. It’s a common trait when studying that you will do anything you can to avoid it. ‘I must just hoover, wash up, clean the entire house before I start to study’ are typical distractions.  On the plus side your house will never be cleaner – but you need to get hold of procrastination which is always the enemy of any student! Stick to your plan.

3. When writing assignments use the internet.

But be careful (refer to point 2 re procrastination when on the internet!)  Books (remember them?) do still have their place but can be expensive and as such we often prefer to Google information these days. This can be a great source, quick and free.  But there are some pointers we need to consider first

Be careful what information you trust on the internet, it might not be high quality.

  • Anyone can put something on the internet – an idiot or an expert.
  • They can say anything they like – it might be it true or false.
  • And leave it there as long as they like – even if it goes out of date.
  • Or change it without warning – or perhaps even remove it completely.

Think about:

  • Who has written the information?
  • Who has published it?
  • Are they a trustworthy source of information?
  • Are they trying to persuade me / sell me something / inform or misinform me?

You can blame Google when you refer an assignment for incorrect information (it happens more often that you think) but it will still be you having to re-write it so worth using these tips to avoid additional work.

4. When you find the information you are looking for don’t just copy it.

Remember plagiarism is a crime!  Well maybe not that dramatic but it is a serious offence and one people can occasionally commit without fully realising it.  Plagiarism is taking the ideas of words of others and passing it off as your own. For example, if you rephrased an idea from a textbook but didn’t reference it then this would be plagiarism. This is because although, the words are yours the idea is not and so you must attribute it to the author.

The best tip is never copy and paste from Google (unless quoting something) as it is far too tempting to change the odd word – which is still plagiarism.  Instead follow the tips below to avoid this.

5. How to write an assignment. 

Starting is often the most difficult step. My learners often worry they will get it wrong, maybe go over the word count, and many other concerns. The best advice I can give is not to overthink it. If you refer on your assignment this really doesn’t matter. The point of studying is to learn, you don’t have all the answers, referring is simply working through that process. You will be given all the support you need to pass that assignment so do not despair if you refer. You will be in good company and equally good company when you pass – which virtually everyone does the second time.

  • The first thing to do is look at the task - What is it asking you to do?
  • Highlight the important points. What research will you need to conduct? What are the topics?
  • Then, conduct your research.
  • Don’t worry – if you need help speak to your tutor – that is what they are there for
  • Plan the assignment. What should each section include?
  • Draft the assignment then make changes.
  • Develop your work; do not try to write the finished assignment in one attempt

6. Don’t forget to reference. 

The first time I studied at university I remember panicking about referencing and specifically Harvard referencing more than the actual course.  To this day – and a few post graduate courses later – I’m still not sure I get Harvard referencing right. For those of you who don’t know what I am talking about and those of you who do and equally hate it don’t despair.

Referencing is important when writing assignments but you won’t refer or fail an assignment if you underline or reference a book incorrectly. I have learnt over the years that each college and university can interpret the method a little differently and the key thing is to reference consistently even if not quite in the same way as Harvard does it.

What this means is ensuring when you are quoting or paraphrasing from a book, website or article that you state that you are doing so in your assignment – this avoids accidentally plagiarising.

During your lessons your tutor will fully explain this to you to ensure you are able to do this easily. My top tip here is when adding a quote to an assignment do it immediately – don’t think I will do that later. Later means having to find the source again which always turns out being next to impossible: I remember this from my dissertation years ago and frantically looking through endless books to find a quote I had used (I never did find it!).

Finally, my most important tip is to enjoy the experience. Your tutor will provide you with the support you need to succeed and to gain the sense of achievement and pride you will feel when it’s complete. Learning for me can be a bit like doing something new for the first time. It can feel scary, sometimes unpleasant but also exciting and after it’s finished you always want to do it again (maybe after a short break though!).


What we learn with pleasure we never forget." - Alfred Mercier


Heidi Thompson is Head of Learning and Development at International Workplace.