This 12 point guide is designed to help you navigate the options, to ensure you choose the best nutrition course for you!
With so many different options available, choosing the best course in nutrition to suit your personal requirements can be confusing. As well as considering length and price there are a whole range of qualifications to choose from, not to mention different methods of study (online, correspondence or attendance) and varying levels of support. So how do you know that you’re getting good value for money, and that the course you choose is the right one for you?
First and foremost, you need to be clear on your reason for studying nutrition. Are you looking for a course that will qualify you to go into clinical practice, or do you want to learn how to improve your own health and that of your family? If you are planning to go into practice, make sure the course is intended for this purpose and includes case work, information on legislation, record keeping and leads to registration. If you want to use the knowledge to stay fit and healthy and make better meals make sure the course covers the main nutritional principals and support for common ailments.
Once you know exactly why you are taking the course, make sure the final award is suitable. If you want to be a dietician in the NHS you will need an approved degree in Dietetics, whereas if you want to work in industry, a course in Human Nutrition would be more suitable than Nutritional Therapy, since you won’t be working with individual clients. If you already work in healthcare (for example a nursing home) then a level 3 ‘Nutritional Advisor’ qualification such as an NVQ or BTEC might be sufficient. Those wishing to work as a Nutritional Therapist, where they would help clients with diet and nutrition advise for all sorts of ailments and health issues should make sure the qualification is suitable for gaining the necessary insurance to practice. Find out more about what is involved with becoming a nutritional therapist. Ideally the course should be accredited by one of the nutrition accrediting bodies. Find out whether accreditation is automatic or if you have to apply separately, and if any additional evidence or fees will be required.
Some programmes have a strong scientific evidence base while others teach a holistic naturopathic approach. More conventional courses lean towards symptom based treatments while naturopathic courses will look at a patient holistically, seeking to treat the whole person and identify the root cause of disease rather than treating only current symptoms. As well as your own beliefs, your reason for study may influence your decision here. A strong scientific focus will be important if you want to work within the NHS, for example.
Is the course held in a classroom, online, by correspondence or a blend of all three? Is there any compulsory attendance on set dates? What opportunities are there to interact with fellow students? It’s important not just to think about convenience, but also your particular learning style. Are you someone who is self-motivated and independent enough to study at home, or do you learn better in a group/class setting? Online courses can make very effective use of discussion forums, webinars, online tutorials and student buddying, but this needs to be well organised and managed in order to be of benefit.
Before signing up you should have an idea of how many hours per week you will need to study to complete the course, and work out if this fits your schedule. Flexible courses, which allow you to study at your own pace, may be completed more quickly by those who already have prior knowledge of the subject; however, the best learning includes not just reading the course material and making notes, but spending time consulting additional material and doing your own research - so make sure you factor in extra time for independent learning and research.
Some courses may require you to hold GCSE or equivalent in a science subject, while others will cover basic science as part of the programme. You might also be required to demonstrate your ability to study at a particular academic level before you will be accepted onto the course. If you don’t know what level the course is pitched at, you won’t know if it’s right for you. If you are unsure it is worth asking the course provider to give you an estimate of the level of difficulty, and ask to see some sample assignments or course material.
This one can be difficult to judge, especially for non-standard qualifications from independent course providers, but looking at a list of topics covered in each module and the estimated number of learning hours will give you a reasonable idea. A course which covers all elements of Nutrition in 6 months might give you an excellent overview but you will not benefit from the same depth of knowledge gained during a two or three year course.
Check out any tutor profiles that you can find and look at how much experience the tutors have, both in supporting, teaching and nutritional practice. If you are interested in a particular area of nutrition you may want to see if any of the tutors have experience or hold qualifications in that area. It might also be useful to know whether you will have one personal tutor throughout the whole course or a different tutor for each module or assignment, and whether there are any specialist visiting lecturers who deliver certain topics. If the tutors are practicing nutritional therapist then you could ask if they have arrangements for students to occasionally sit in with them when they are seeing clients.
How often will you see or speak to your tutor? If the course is online, are there certain hours when you can contact your tutor or the office staff? Bear in mind some online tutors may be in different time zones, and not easily accessible. What is the standard turnaround time for marking assignments? If your tutor works part time, is there anyone else who will be able to help you when your tutor is not around? Does the course offer tutorials? Make sure you are comfortable with the tutoring arrangements before committing.
If you can, try and get an idea of how many students are on the course, how many have completed the programme and how many each tutor supports, to give you an idea of how much time your tutor can dedicate. If your course is classroom-based it also helps to know what size group you will be in, and how much interaction you will have with teachers and other students.
Some courses may have ongoing assessment throughout while others have final exams – either online or at an exam centre. There might also be compulsory coursework modules at various points in the programme. Essays are very different to short answer questions, and if it’s a long time since you’ve studied you may need to brush up on your writing skills. If you have a learning disability check the arrangements for alternate assessment methods (e.g. dyslexic students may wish to submit a voice recording instead of an essay). Remember that any course preparing you for clinical practise should contain case work and clinical hours.
You never know where your study will lead you, so it might be worth considering whether the qualification can be used to go onto further study. Modular courses may allow you to start with the basics and build up bit by bit, without committing to the full programme at the outset. In some cases, there may be an option to upgrade a certificate or diploma to an advanced diploma or even a degree at a later date. Once you start studying nutrition you might be surprised to find how far you want to take it, and many people find they they want to know more and more!We hope this guide helps you to find the best nutrition course. Whatever you decide, it truly is a fascinating subject and you are sure to enjoy your journey. Michele Wood, nutrition tutor, The School of Health Mani Norland, principal, The School of Health
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