How to Study Engineering


If implemented, the study skills outline below will not only help you become a more successful engineering student, they'll make the study of engineering much more enjoyable!

Become a problem solver.
In high school all you had to do was show up for class, listen to the wisdom and truth spewing forth from your teacher and soak it up. If you did this, you'd be able to complete your assignments with relative ease and pass your exams. That approach may have worked for you in high school, but it starts to fall apart in college–especially if choose to major in a field of engineering.

In the real world, there aren't any professors spoon feeding you information, giving you homework, providing lectures full of useful information, or end of semester exams for you to prove yourself. In the real world there are simply problems–usually poorly defined problems. These problems require solutions that are either acceptable or unacceptable. There is no partial credit for solutions that don't work–or that sort of work. If you design landing gear for twenty airplanes and one set of gear fails, you're not going get a 95 percent and a pat on the back.

In order to excel in engineering, either academically or professionally, you need to change your mindset. You need to learn to not count on someone else to tell you everything you need to know to solve problems. You need to learn (1) how to discover what you need to know and then (2) where to go to find it.

Discover your learning style.
Every student has a different learning style. Some students are visual learners (learn through imagery and spacial understanding), others are auditory learners (learn through listening and sound), and some are physical learners (learn through hands-on, tactile interaction). In all, there are seven unique learning styles. You may have a dominant learning style or a mix of learning styles. As an engineering student, identifying and understanding your learning style can be helpful, especially when your instructor's teaching style does not match your learning style.

Some engineering instructors are guilty of using a lot of words and formulas as they lecture but neglect to employ visual imagery (pictures, diagrams, flow charts, sketches, etc.) For a student that is a visual learner, this can be frustrating and problematic. Other instructors are big into mathematical theory and formulas but provide little in the way of real-world examples and application. For a student that is a physical learner, this makes learning challenging. Your first job as an aspiring engineer is to discover your learning style, your professor's teaching style, and figure out how to fill in the gaps.

You can discover your learning style by reading Discover Your Learning Style.

Seek help from your instructor.
Contrary to popular belief, instructors are hired to teach, not to lecture. Lecturing is just one form of teaching–and not always the most effective. Instructors are there to help you learn, and in most cases they really want you to succeed. If there is something you're not understanding during a lecture, raise your hand and ask a "clarifying" question. While it's acceptable to say, "I don't understand." It's far better to ask a clarifying question that allows the instructor to provide you specific information to help you gain clarity and understanding. Asking clarifying questions also tells the instructor that you were paying attention. Examples of clarifying questions include:

  • How is this theory applied in the real world?
  • Could you provide an example of when this formula might be used?
  • Could you sketch what that (solution, device, etc.) might look like?
  • How is this equation applied in practice?
  • Where did that formula come from?
  • I still don't understand when that formula is used.

In order to ask clarifying questions it's important that you come to class prepared and pay attention to the lecture. Asking clarifying questions not only helps you learn, it helps your entire class.

Most engineering instructors are happy to answer any question you have during class. However, there are a few who don't handle questions very well–especially if they have a lecture they're trying to get through. If you happen to get an instructor who is hostile towards questions, make an appointment to meet with your instructor during office hours to get your questions answered.

Don't ask questions that you could have answered yourself with a little study or research. No one likes to have their time wasted. Never ask your instructor for help with a problem until after you've spent ample time and effort trying to figure it out on your own. When you ask your instructor for help figuring out the solution to a problem, be prepared to present ALL the work you've performed in your attempt to solve it.

When at all possible, go as a group during your instructor's office hours to seek solutions to problems you're unable to solve on your own. Going as a group shows your instructor that you've made a legitimate attempt to solve the problem and he'll likely feel like his time is being better spent by helping several of his students instead of just one.

Read your textbook with purpose... but read it.
There are many reasons students read textbooks. Often, it's to find an answer to a homework problem they're trying to solve. In an effort to find specific information, they skim through the text, ignoring much of what's presented, in order to find clues and examples that will help them solve their homework problem. After completing their homework assignment, they ignore their text until another set of problems is assigned.

Many engineering texts cover important theoretical material, providing real-world examples of how engineering theories are applied in practice. When the text is only used to answer assigned homework problems, students miss out on a valuable learning opportunities that will help them down the road in other engineering courses and later in their careers.

Form a study group.
Working with a study group can be beneficial for any student. However, for the engineering student, working with a study group is particularly advantageous. The benefits of working with a study group for engineering students include:

  • Engineering is a changing field of study. It's not uncommon for students to get stuck on a problem and want to give up. When working as a group, students are able to find solutions to challenging engineering problems that they may not have been able to solve on their own.

  • Study groups allow for various perspectives and expose alternative ways to solve problems. Even when you're able to solve a problem, someone in your group may come up with a solution that is more effective and efficient than your solution.

  • Study groups create environments where teaching occurs. As engineering students share with one another their knowledge, insights and understanding on engineering theories, formulas, equations they reinforce their own understanding. Most instructors will attest, to teach a subject is the most effective way to learn it.

  • Study groups foster a collaborative learning environment. Research suggests that collaborative learning is very effective. Studies show that students who regularly participate in study groups retain what they learn longer, gain a better understanding of concepts and theories, enjoy coursework more, gain more self-confidence, and perform better in class than students who work on their own or have a competitive attitude toward other engineering students (D.W. Johnson, R.T. Johnson, and K.A. Smith, Cooperative Learning, ASHE-ERIC Higher Education Report No. 4, George Washington University, Washington, DC, 1991.)

  • Study groups engender teamwork. Once you enter the workforce, you'll find that almost all engineering projects are performed by teams of engineers. Working with a study group will help you develop team building skills and prepare you to be a team player.

Some study groups are more effective than others. Effective study groups for engineering students share the following characteristics.

  • Groups of 3 to 5
    Study groups should include at least three engineering students but no more than five. With fewer than three students, study groups tend to be ineffective because a sufficient variety of approaches, insights, knowledge and ideas are not offered. In groups greater than five, there is a tendency for some students to do most of the work while others are left out the active problem-solving process.

  • Do the work by yourself first.
    The most challenging aspect of solving engineering problems is figuring out how to get started. It's important that every student figures how to solve engineering problems on their own. It's not uncommon for one student in a group to be quicker than the rest in initiating the problem solving process. If the same student initiates every solution, then the other students in the group will never gain the confidence or ability to set up and tackle engineering problems on their own. Before working on engineering problems with your group, outline the solution to problems yourself.

  • Every group member must understand every solution.
    One of the challenges of study groups (especially in engineering) is that one or two group members often develop a solution to a problem while the others just sort follow along not really participating in the problem solving process. Effective study groups ensure that all group members participate in finding solutions and that all solutions are thoroughly understood by each group member. Before a group study session is ended, each group member should explain to the rest of the group how each solutions was obtained in order to ensure understanding.

More information on developing effective study groups can be obtained by reading our article Using Study Groups Effectively.

Other Study Skills Resources
All of the study skills introduced above are specifically for engineering students. However, engineering students will also benefit from reviewing the following study skills guides and resources.

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