Before one considers returning to school, one should ask one's self, "How do I learn?" Are you an auditory learner (listening), a visual learner (observing) or a tactile learner (hands-on)? Do you need structure or are you good with just "going with the flow"? Do you easily grasp abstract concepts or are you more of a concrete person? Does listening to music help you study or is noise a distraction for you? Are you satisfied to merely observe or do you have to get involved with some kind of activity? Do you enjoy detail (a prolific note-taker) or are you more of a big-picture person (lecture summary is sufficient)? Do you enjoy studying in groups or are you a loner?
I am primarily a hands-on learner. I don't do abstract concepts well (like math). I like structure (to a point) because it helps me to know what to expect. Music is a study distraction for me. I need to be involved with an activity. I am a prolific note-taker to the point of being a tad anal about my notes (I take notes in outline form and type them up after class). I'd rather study by myself or with a friend, but not with a group.
The most important tools in my backpack are my planner (school calendar) and a class syllabus. At the beginning of the semester, I will transfer important dates from the syllabus into my planner (assignment due dates, exam dates, etc.). The nice thing about my planner is that it has all the important dates (holidays, finals, school days off) already noted.
Different profs have different teaching styles that don't always connect with my learning style. What do I do in that case? Skip class? Never! I tailor their teaching style to my learning style. For example, if the class is primarily a lecture (no visual aids), I fill my notebook with notes. If the prof uses visual aids, I will draw a picture to accompany my notes. If the prof assigns a great deal of reading in lieu of lecturing, I will take notes on what I've read.
When I home schooled, there were two books I'd recommend to every new homeschooling parent. They were; "The Way They Learn" by Cynthia Ulrich Tobias and "Different Children, Different Needs" by Charles Boyd. These books give insight on learning styles and personality types. Together, they provide a clue as to what learning arena may best suit your personality.
Shakespeare said, "To thine own self be true." In order to be successful as a nontrad, I need to know how I learn, what tools I can use to make my learning experience better, and how I can tailor the classroom experience to meet my learning needs. It takes time to get a handle on that information, but in the end, it's worth it!