Dear Heather

In December, The Voice said goodbye to the popular Dear Sandra column, and AU students lost one source of valuable advice. This week, we are pleased to introduce Dear Heather, your newest source of advice on life, learning, love, and more: Send your questions to to be featured in an upcoming column.

Dear Heather,

I’m a new Athabasca University student. I’ve been out of school for the last 22 years, and I think I’ve forgotten how to study. I feel like I’ll never learn everything in time for my exam. To make matters worse, I’ve never done a course by distance ed and I feel like I’m completely on my own. Help!

-Sheila R., Newcastle, ON

Dear Sheila:

Don’t despair! Many AU students have been out of school for a long time, but the vast majority succeed at their courses, so I’m sure that you will, too!

Here are some tips:

Don’t look at that 800-page textbook and think that you need to learn the whole thing. Most courses cover only a portion of the material in the text. Read all of the assigned chapters, but focus on the objectives in your student manual or study guide. This is what you’ll be tested on, so memorizing anything else is a waste of your time.

Usually, each unit of a course builds on the previous ones. So, as you work through the course, don’t move on to the next unit until you understand the material in the current one. This will keep you from becoming confused, and will make studying for exams much easier.

Don’t ignore the diagrams in your textbook. For years I read the text and barely glanced at the diagrams. Since I started paying attention to them, I’ve discovered that they often help me understand and remember the material I’m reading.

Take advantage of all the study aids at your disposal. These include (but are definitely not limited to) your tutor, the CD-ROM in your textbook, videos from the AU library, and practice tests. Different students have different learning styles, and it helps if you discover yours. If you’re studying chemistry, you may find you learn best by using a molecular model kit so you can visualize a compound. Other students benefit from reading the material and then quizzing themselves on the objectives, while still others learn by writing out notes. Use your local library or bookstore for specialized study aids: flash cards, study guides, books that explain the subject in simple terms (like the “For Dummies” and “Made Simple”series)- there are even grown-up colouring books for subjects like anatomy!

Fill in the dates on the study schedule in your student manual, and then stick to it: in addition to keeping you from falling behind, this will also help make the course less intimidating by breaking it into manageable sections.

There are lots of great books out there on how to improve your study skills. AUSU offers a number of helpful publications at no charge to students: visit their website at to see what’s available.

Good luck with your studies!


E-mail your questions to Heather at Some submissions may be edited for length or to protect confidentiality: your real name and location will never be printed. This column is for entertainment only. Heather is an AU student offering objective advice to her peers; she is not a professional counsellor and this column is not intended to take the place of professional advice.