How to Shop for CEUs

By Rebecca Jones
[Ten for Today]

Two things typically motivate massage therapists to enroll in a continuing education class: they are genuinely looking to learn something new or they simply need the continuing education units (CEUs) to keep their licenses current.

Those in the latter category don’t have to look long or hard to find a class that will do the job, as long as they’re not picky about how satisfying the experience is. 

But for those who hunger for something more, choosing the right continuing education classes is more challenging. Choose wisely, and the classes can invigorate a burned-out therapist, reinvigorate a stagnant practice, or nourish a longing for community. Choose poorly, and the experience can be a waste of time and money and, in some cases, can even do more harm than good.

Given the range of options—everything from quick and inexpensive online courses and weekend classes at nearby massage schools to professional association meetings and longer-term immersions in far-off locales—how does a bodyworker choose what’s best? 

There’s no one answer, but following are some things to consider when deciding how to invest your continuing education dollars.

1. Don’t procrastinate

“Be proactive about your continuing education,” advises Anne Williams, director of education for Associated Bodywork & Massage Professionals and a workshop provider. “A lot of times, people are just reactive: ‘Oh no, I’ve got to take a course this weekend because it’s due on Tuesday!’ That’s setting yourself up for spending money on something that’s available, as opposed to something that inspires you.” Plan early, figure out what you want to do this year, and start saving the money for it now.

2. Invest first in the practical

That might mean taking a class in marketing or business communications. “The first question to ask yourself is whether your business is where you want it to be,” Williams says. “If not, then is another technique class really your best strategy?”

Ruth Werner, education chair and president-elect of the Massage Therapy Foundation, teaches classes in pathology for massage therapists—a topic she acknowledges isn’t sexy. “My classes don’t compete well with the cool, great new neck technique going on next door,” she says. “But the people who take my classes are incredibly glad they did and wonder why others don’t.”

She advises shoppers to ask themselves these questions: Where does my career or my education need some shoring up? What do I not know enough about? The answers may lead to classes that are hardly glamorous, but eminently useful.

3. don’t be so focused on “practical” that you never get to “fun”

Continuing education classes may just get you excited about your profession again. “If a technique class will do that, then take it,” Williams says. “The second question to ask yourself is ‘How am I feeling about massage? Is there something that will inspire me and feed my soul?’”

Thomas Myers, author of the Anatomy Trains series, advises therapists to occasionally take something “off-the-wall” to battle boredom. “Take a course outside your realm that forces you into new areas,” he suggests. “If you’ve already taken five courses in neuromuscular therapy, what’s a sixth one going to do for you?”

But just like diners at a smorgasbord need to practice restraint and not help themselves to some of everything, be thoughtful about your education choices.

“Have some clarity about why you’re taking a class,” says Art Riggs, a San Francisco-based bodywork teacher and author of Deep Tissue Massage: A Visual Guide to Techniques (North Atlantic, 2002). “I have some friends who bounce around, taking all sorts of classes. They’re continuing education junkies. They can do a ton of therapies, but they never really get a niche where they’re really comfortable and confident.”

4. Don’t limit yourself to the minimum you need to keep your license

This is especially true for new massage therapists, says Whitney Lowe, director of the Orthopedic Massage Education & Research Institute in Sisters, Oregon. “The newer you are as a practitioner, the more CE courses help spur your interest,” he says. But the best massage therapists are also lifelong learners who never get tired of trying new things.

Even if you can cram in all the CE hours you need in a single week, consider spreading out your class time over the course of the year. “This is a time to not only broaden your knowledge and skill base, but a time to connect with colleagues,” Werner says. “We work in tremendous isolation, and we don’t have a lot of opportunities to share with our colleagues. Continuing education classes are a time to do that.”

5. Ask questions before you enroll 

Will the class be large or small? What’s the instructor/student ratio? How much will be hands-on versus lecture? Will students mostly be working with a teaching assistant? Can the school steer you to inexpensive but comfortable lodging nearby?

“It’s hard to know these things just by reading class marketing materials,” Lowe says. “Word of mouth is a valuable indicator. Ask people you know in your network of therapists about classes they’ve taken. Various Internet forums are also good places to pose these questions.”

Don’t be shy about calling up the instructor either, experts say. “Ask about their educational philosophy. Ask for the learning objectives and make sure they’re in alignment with your needs,” Williams says. “It’s completely fair to want to speak to the instructor, and if the instructor doesn’t have time to talk to you, that’s a good indication you might want to go somewhere else.”

6. Once you learn it, then what?

Williams teaches a workshop in stone massage, which costs $400. But if students want to practice what they’ve learned, they’ll need another $300 worth of equipment. “If you can’t afford the equipment to deliver this particular technique after you’ve learned it, maybe the class isn’t the best use of your time and money,” she says.

If it’s a new area of study for you, ask for reading suggestions or class handouts to be sent to you beforehand, Riggs suggests.

 “Learning about the technique before you take the course could help you make good choices, save you money, and get you what you’re looking for,” Williams says.

7. Consider taking classes online

Online classes offer several advantages: you avoid travel costs, and you can often work through the course at your own pace and at a time convenient for you. From a strictly economic standpoint, online learning is a bargain.

But it can also be a gamble. “There’s bad online education all over the place,” Williams warns. “Most often, you get what you pay for. If you’re buying a $25 two-hour course, you’ll likely read a section of material, then take a quiz on it, then read another section. There may be very little interaction.”

Some topics—especially techniques—simply don’t lend themselves to online teaching. But other topics are fine, she says.

The best online classes provide opportunities for students to interact with each other. “I just did a workshop on how to create an online workshop,” Werner says. “And it was really hard. The online courses that fit the format well are ones that involve the participants in activities. So an assignment to ‘go forth and do this thing,’ and come back and tell us how it went—that works well.”

8. Have realistic expectations

Weekend classes are a great way to be introduced to something new. But it’s just that—an introduction.

“Some people come to a weekend workshop thinking they’ll go home with a new skill,” Myers says. “That’s a really short time in which to learn something new, especially if you’re talking about taking on a new modality. I’m suspicious of those who say you can learn acupressure in a weekend. You get just enough information in a weekend to be dangerous.”

On the other hand, don’t be too hard on yourself if you don’t grasp the new material as quickly as you’d hoped. “Nobody gets everything out of a class,” Riggs says. “Learn what you learn and don’t be hard on yourself fretting over what you think you didn’t get ‘perfectly.’ If the material is worthwhile, it should be complex enough and thought-stimulating to need practice after you return home.”

9. If the class doesn’t live up to its billing, let the instructor know

It’s even OK to ask for your money back, if you do so early on. But don’t sit through the whole class and then ask for a refund.

If you do stick it out, spell out your complaints in the class evaluation form. “Don’t just write good things to avoid hurting the instructor’s feelings,” Werner says. “On any given evaluation form, a couple of questions are most meaningful: What could improve this class? What ideas are going to stick with you that you got today? As a class provider, those are the questions I skip right to.”

10. Make it an adventure

There’s no reason you can’t take a class in a beautiful spot and tie your class work to a vacation. Providers such as Erik Dalton and James Waslaski have been teaching in exotic destinations like Costa Rica with great success. Talk to your accountant about the appropriate tax deductions, and talk a friend into coming with you.

It may be that all you need to fulfill your licensure requirements is a one-day class. But that’s no reason not to sign up for something more adventurous.

“People ought to be seeking out continuing education anyway, regardless of whether it’s attached to their license, or certification, or a credential they want to keep,” Werner says. “The coolest, most amazing thing about this profession is that no one will ever reach the day when they can say, ‘Now I know all there is to know about that.’” 


 Rebecca Jones is a Denver-based freelance writer. Contact her at