22 Tips How to Study Engineering Subjects

Learning abstract technical concepts isn’t easy. But if you learn how to study engineering subjects properly, you can become a 10x engineer.

To improve your studying, I’ve assembled 22 tips from my experiences and the best engineers I know.

So, whether you’re a student or working, these tips can benefit you. Especially, since formal engineering education is weakening.

#1 Learn something new daily

seek knowledge

Set aside 30 minutes every day to explore a new topic.

Say you’re learning about electricity in the classroom. Take the initiative and learn about magnetism too before it’s lectured on. Because both these subjects tie together. Plus, the magnetism lectures will be clearer to you and you can ask better questions in class. This is why it’s good practice to read lecture material beforehand.

For working engineers, there are endless subjects to choose to learn.

Suggestions on what to do: 

  • Create a list of topics you want to learn about. Then, update your list as new topics strike you.
  • Carve out a dedicated time in your day for self-learning. Maybe wake up 45 minutes earlier than normal to fit in studying.

#2 Repetitions in learning

Basketball players practice shooting jump shots all day long. Do the same with solving problems and comprehending complex subjects. The following are the benefits:

  • Strengthening current behaviors
  • Expanding or modifying existing behaviors
  • Enabling adaptation to completely new behaviors

You master what you practice. In the same vein, I sometimes read subjects five-plus times for the material to become sticky. This is totally normal.

Suggestions on what to do: 

  • Study theory and real-world applications of your subject, until you understand all parts.
  • Study secondary subjects relating to your primary topic, to strengthen your core understanding.

#3 Solve problems

Reading is great, but until you solve problems you won’t fully understand a subject. Because problem-solving exposes your weaknesses and shows you where you need extra work.

Also when solving problems, don’t quickly ask for help. Instead, struggle with problems to the point of frustration. Then when you have breakthroughs, you’ll have a much deeper understanding of a subject.

Suggestions on what to do: 

  • Study a solution only after you’ve struggled with the problem for a long period of time.
  • Don’t ask for help until you’ve completely exhausted every problem-solving method you know.
  • Push your limits by solving challenging problems.

#4 Make studying a habit

studying engineering

Some days you won’t feel like studying. You’ll kick back and surf the internet or play video games all day. But if you make studying a daily habit, you’ll do it even if you’re dead tired. This goes back to Tip #2 with repetitions.

The more you do something, the better chance you have of it becoming a habit. And if you’re striving to become a rockstar engineer, studying needs to become a habit. Even more, you need to become a lifelong learner.

For example, do you think Michael Jordan quit practicing after his third championship? No! He practiced even harder and improved his skillset as his athleticism began to dip.

Suggestions on what to do: 

  • Make studying a priority in your life.
  • Push through the beginning difficult stage where you don’t feel like studying. Over time, it’ll become habitually easy.
  • Explain to yourself how studying is a key ingredient to success.

#5 Go to office hours 

Not all, but some professors are great teachers. And by going to office hours, you receive one on one help to review complex subjects and problems. Also, you get instant answers to all your questions.

For working engineers, go speak with someone more knowledgeable than you. Find another engineer in your office or on a message board, to speed up your learning.

Suggestions on what to do: 

  • Have all your questions written down before going to office hours.
  • Take detailed notes as your professor or another engineer explains a subject to you.
  • If an explanation doesn’t make sense, don’t be afraid to ask for clarification.

#6 Create study groups

There’s no better way to learn than in collaborative learning environments. Because the mix of different perspectives and knowledge bases simplifies problem-solving.

Also, you may already know how to solve a given problem. But, someone can show you a simpler solution.

Suggestions on what to do: 

  • Try solving a problem on your own first, before taking it to a group study session.
  • Create a group of people who are like-minded and enthusiastic to learn.
  • Have an agenda for each study session to not waste time.

#7 Teach others

One of the best ways to know you deeply understand a subject is to teach others. Because you can’t teach a subject you don’t understand yourself.

Better yet, write a thorough blog post on a subject. This allows you to know if you fully understand a subject or not. For example, I’ve written how to calculate a current limiting reactor rating for a substation.

Suggestions on what to do: 

  • Teach others hairy engineering concepts (e.g. electromagnetism).
  • Solve and explain problems in front of others step by step.

#8 Use online sources to learn

You can find great free information on just about any engineering subject online. There are Youtube videos, blog articles, academic papers, and so on.

Even more, there are many free online courses offered by various institutions. This includes Stanford and MIT. So, there are no excuses not to learn.

Suggestions on what to do: 

  • Take time to search and find the best online resources for your subject. Not all content is equal in usefulness.
  • Vet your online content. Not everything found online is credible. So, read website comments, learn about authors, and verify information sources.

#9 Study without distractions

Don’t fool yourself into thinking having a book open in Starbucks is the same as studying. Some people may be able to digest complex subjects amidst endless noise, but I haven’t seen it.

Suggestions on what to do: 

  • Find a quiet and distraction-free area in order to maintain focus while studying heavily.
  • Set aside your phone to avoid distractions from constant notifications.

#10 Focus on understanding and not memorizing

visualization of real world one line and panel elevation view
One-line diagram with accompanying equipment elevation view (General Electric 1982 catalog)

Memorizing subjects may seem like the easy way out. But if a new problem has a small twist, you won’t know what to do.

What’s more, in school, memorizing may get you a good grade. But in the real world, problems will almost never be cookie-cutter. You need to know how to solve problems without solutions staring back at you.

Suggestions on what to do: 

  • Dive down every rabbit hole possible when solving problems. Be sure you understand each underlying and tangent concept a problem offers.
  • Take notes on what you learn, as you won’t remember everything.

#11 Learn the fundamentals of subjects

It goes without saying, you can’t do calculus until you learn basic arithmetic. The same applies to almost all engineering concepts. You need to first learn the fundamentals before learning the complex subjects.

For example, how will you understand how a motor works if you don’t even know Ohm’s Law? You can’t!

I compare this to the construction of a building. Each floor builds on top of another floor. And without a strong foundation, everything will crumble.

Suggestions on what to do: 

  • Learn the fundamentals of a subject before seeking to tackle complex ideas.
  • Adopt first principles thinking as popularized by Elon Musk. This is a powerful way to approach every engineering problem you come across.
  • Learn basic math and physics concepts well, to establish your foundation.

#12 Derive engineering formulas

Try to derive engineering formulas, to understand their underlying concepts. You’ll also learn how and why the formula variables relate together.

The key is though to understand the fundamental principles of a subject first, as described in Tip #11. Only then, you can derive a formula and soak in the invaluable information.

Suggestions on what to do: 

  • If you’ve never derived formulas, then review derivations in textbooks. Understand all the ins and outs of the derivation process.
  • In each step of a derivation, understand the underlying logic.

#13 Solve and understand difficult problems

You’re working in reverse with this strategy. If you can solve a complex problem, you can manage all lower-level problems.

So find and solve the hairiest problem you can get a hold of. Try to understand all the ins and outs of the problem too. Then, when you tackle normal difficulty-level problems, they’ll seem like a cinch.

Suggestions on what to do: 

  • Seek challenging problems relating to subjects you’re learning about.
  • Take step-by-step notes with every stage of a problem you solve, to not forget key details.

#14 Get a tutor

Tutors can be expensive. But if you can afford them, find an awesome tutor to teach you a subject for a couple of sessions. One-on-one teaching is one of the best ways to learn.

Even more, ask a smart buddy or colleague to teach you one-on-one for free. Just don’t forget to get them a case of beer and a pizza afterward.

Suggestions on what to do: 

  • Write down all your questions before a tutor session.
  • Takes detailed notes in your tutor session.

#15 Keep a curious mind

In engineering, there are many opportunities to ask questions. Because there’s so much you don’t know, and the field is so broad.

I’ve worked as an engineer for over 15 years and I ask new questions daily. I ask questions to vendors, contractors, and other engineers. I’m constantly looking to soak in more information. And not surprisingly, the more I learn, the more I find out how little I know.

Suggestions on what to do: 

  • Never shy away from asking questions. Stupid questions don’t exist.
  • Find reputable sources to ask your questions to. A classmate, working engineer, or anyone you can trust.
  • When a question strikes you, write it down. Because like dreams, they’ll quickly escape your mind.

#16 Create a strategy to approach problem-solving

Once you understand a problem, figure out your strategy to tackle similar problems. For example, consider a single-phase voltage drop calculation. My strategy for solving these types of problems is the following:

  1. Draw a schematic diagram with known and unknown variables listed.
  2. Visualize the theory behind the problem. In our example, the current reduces as it travels down a long impedance (i.e. the wire).
  3. Solve the problem by crunching numbers.

Suggestions on what to do: 

  • Look at different ways how to solve problems. Then, choose the simplest method and make any necessary tweaks. This is your problem-solving strategy.
  • Learn how others approach and solve similar problems.

#17 Get hands-on experience

electrical equipment lineup

Reading concepts in books alone can be downright confusing. But, seeing the application of concepts in the real world, enhances learning. Because you’re able to visually connect the theoretical points from your textbooks together. Humans are visual creatures.

Not surprisingly, I believe real-world experience trumps formal education.

Suggestions on what to do: 

  • Find real-world applications of a subject you’re learning, to observe, inspect, and ask questions on.
  • Take schematics to project sites, to cross-check theories with the real world.

#18 Take notes on everything you learn

One common theme in all these techniques is great note-taking. When I was younger, I’d spend hours studying a single subject until I thought I knew everything. Then several months down the line, the fine details escaped my mind. I’d then kick myself for not having taken notes.

Not only did I need to relearn parts again, but I had to re-find where I learned everything from. A huge time sink!

Suggestions on what to do: 

  • Take notes on everything, including the details you think you’ll never forget.
  • Transfer your notes to an online platform, annotated with long-tail descriptive keywords. This makes note searching easy.

#19 Never limit your learning

Because your syllabus says to learn X and Y subjects, it doesn’t mean you can’t learn subject Z. The same concept applies to working engineers. If you’re an electrical engineer, you can still learn about mechanical engineering.

Never live life through predefined labels and boundaries. The more you learn, the more well-rounded engineer you’ll become.

Suggestions on what to do: 

  • Never fear jumping down a new rabbit hole to learn something new.
  • The day when universities were gatekeepers to knowledge is over. Leverage the internet to learn all types of cool new subjects.

#20 Write out each problem step-by-step

When you solve problems, write out each of your steps and variables. Not only will you better understand problems, but you can better troubleshoot.

For example, the following are some sample problems I’ve solved as a design engineer:

Suggestions on what to do: 

  • Review easy-to-follow problems in textbooks. Then, emulate the steps in your own problem-solving work.
  • Write out each of your math or conceptual steps.
  • List all unit values.
  • Add notes to your steps, as necessary.

#21 Sketch problems out

sketched three line diagram with fault
Three-line diagram with an identified fault (General Electric 1982 catalog)

As visual creatures, sketching problems has the following benefits:

  • Helps with brainstorming
  • Stimulates critical thinking
  • Allows for proper evaluation of the feasibility of solutions

I find the better you can sketch problems, the more easily you can solve problems. Frankly, it’s difficult to sketch problems you don’t fully understand.

Suggestions on what to do: 

  • In your sketch, show each of the problem variables and what you’re solving for.
  • Make your sketch to a scale if it helps with visualization.
  • Review the sketches of similar problems to learn what to include in your sketch.

#22 Think logically when solving problems

Before you solve a problem, have an intuitive solution in mind.

For example, say you have a long conductor run and the source voltage is 480 volts. The question asks to solve the load voltage.

Right off the bat, you know the load voltage will be less than 480 volts because of the conductor impedance. If your solved answer is greater than 480V, you know you have an error.

Suggestions on what to do: 

  • Practice looking at problems from a rational and real-world perspective. Then, figure out how problem variables relate together.
  • Form a deep understanding of engineering and science concepts, to intuitively review problems.

“How to study engineering subjects” wrap up 

Learning how to study engineering subjects is like any other skill. You need to work on the skill, to make it better. And if you learn how to work like a machine, the process becomes further simplified.

In the end, studying will become enjoyable and effortless. Your entire engineering career will transform for the better as well.

What are the best ways you’ve found how to study engineering subjects? When it comes to how to study engineering subjects, what impact has the internet had on you?

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