22 Tips on 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 help improve your studying, I’ve put together 22 tips. These are tips I’ve gathered through my own experiences and from 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 every day

seek knowledge

Set aside 30 or so minutes every day to go down a new rabbit hole.

For example, 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 always good practice to read lecture material beforehand.

Now, switching to working engineers. There are endless subjects to learn, just for the sake of learning.

Suggestions on what to do: 

  • Create a list of topics you want to learn about. Then, constantly update your list. This way you won’t ever run out of study subjects.
  • Carve out a dedicated time in your day for self-learning. Maybe wake up 45 minutes earlier than normal to fit in your studying.

#2 Repetitions in learning

Basketball players practice shooting jump shots all day long. Similarly, 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

So over time, you become great and what you’re practicing. In the same vein, I sometimes read subjects five-plus times for the material to stick in my head. And this is totally normal.

Suggestions on what to do: 

  • Study a concept repeatedly until you understand every last part of it. This includes the theory and real-world applications.
  • Study secondary subjects relating to your primary study topic. This will strengthen your core understanding of a given topic.

#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 you do try solving problems, don’t quickly ask for help. Instead, struggle with problems, and get frustrated. I mean really frustrated. 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, so you’ll kick back and surf the internet or play video games all day long. 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 stopped practicing after his third championship? No! He practiced even harder and added more moves to his arsenal as his athleticism began to dip.

Suggestions on what to do: 

  • Make studying a priority in your life.
  • Push through the beginning difficult study stage where you don’t feel like studying. Then over time, it’ll become easier and easier if you stick to it.
  • Explain to yourself 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 get 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. This is a great way to speed up your learning.

Suggestions on what to do: 

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

#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.

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

Suggestions on what to do: 

  • Try to solve 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 is a great way to know if you fully understand a subject or not. For example, I’ve written how to calculate a current limiting reactor 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 online courses offered by various institutions for free. Heck, you can find amazing free online engineering courses through Stanford and MIT. So, there are no excuses to not learn.

Suggestions on what to do: 

  • Take time to search and find the best online resources for your subject. Because not all content is equal in usefulness.
  • Vet your online content. Not everything you find online is credible. So, read website comments, and verify sources of information. Sometimes, you may need to cross-reference online content with textbooks.

#9 Study without distractions

Don’t fool yourself into thinking having a book open in Starbucks is studying. Maybe, some people can digest complex subjects in endless noise. But, I haven’t seen it.

So find somewhere silent without distractions. This is the best way to maintain a high level of focus, especially as subjects get deep.

Suggestions on what to do: 

  • Find a quiet distraction-free area to do your heavy studying.
  • Set your phone aside when studying. You don’t want distractions from constant notification pings.

#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 to it, 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’ll need to figure out how to solve problems without solutions in the back of a book.

Suggestions on what to do: 

  • Dive down every rabbit hole possible with solving problems. Be sure you understand each underlying and tangent concept a problem offers.
  • Take notes on everything you learn. Because you’ll never 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 trying to learn 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: 

  • Your first priority is always to learn the fundamentals of a subject. Even if takes you an extra month’s time to learn. THEN, go to the complex subjects.
  • 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 very well. Engineering revolves around both math and physics.

#12 Derive engineering formulas

Try to derive your engineering formulas. By understanding the derivation of formulas, you’ll better grasp their underlying concepts. You’ll also see how and why the formula variables relate together.

BUT, the key is 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, review derivations in textbooks. Understand all the ins and outs of the derivation process.
  • In each step of a derivation, try to understand the logic. Don’t try to just regurgitate the memorized detailed steps.

#13 Solve and understand difficult problems

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

So if you have the time, try to solve the hairiest problem you can get a hold of. At the same time, do your best to understand all the ins and outs of the problem. THEN, when you go tackle normal difficulty-level problems, they’ll seem like a cinch.

Suggestions on what to do: 

  • Find a challenging problem relating to what you’re currently learning. Then, research and understand every relating concept.
  • Take step-by-step notes with every stage of the problem you solve. Because you don’t want to forget any key details.

#14 Get a tutor

Yes I know, it’s expensive. But if you have the money as a student, get an awesome tutor to teach you a subject for a couple of sessions. I find 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 your tutor session.
  • Takes detailed notes in your tutor session.

#15 Keep a curious mind

In engineering, there’s A LOT of 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. Because 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. There’s no such thing as a stupid question.
  • Find reputable sources to ask your questions to. Find 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 to 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 problem, 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 of how to solve problems. Then, choose the simplest method and make any necessary tweaks. This now becomes your problem-solving strategy.
  • Learn how others around you approach and solve similar problems.

#17 Get hands-on experience

electrical equipment lineup

Reading concepts in books alone can be downright confusing. But, if you see the application of a concept in the real world, you can better learn. Because you’re often able to visually connect all the theoretical points from your textbooks together. Humans are visual creatures.

This is why I believe real-world experience trumps formal education.

Suggestions on what to do: 

  • Find real-world applications of a subject you’re learning. Then, go observe, inspect, ask questions, and learn.
  • Take schematics with you to project sites. This way you can 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. It was the biggest waste of time!

Suggestions on what to do: 

  • Take notes on everything. Even the details you think you’ll never forget.
  • Transfer your notes to an online platform. Then organize your notes with long-tail descriptive keywords. This makes searching your notes 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.

So, never live life through predefined labels and boundaries. In the end, the more you learn, the more well-rounded engineer you’ll become.

Suggestions on what to do: 

  • Don’t ever be afraid to jump down a new rabbit hole to learn something new.
  • The day where universities were gatekeepers to knowledge is over. Leverage the internet to learn all types of cool new things.

#20 Write out each problem step-by-step

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

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)

We’re visual creatures, so sketching problems has the following benefits:

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

So, the better you can sketch problems, the more easily you can solve problems. Because you’ll better be able to see what you need to solve for. Plus, 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 your visualization.
  • Review the sketches of similar problems to learn what to include in your sketch.

#22 Think logically when solving problems

Before you start solving a problem, think over what the solution should be. You should always have an intuitive solution in mind.

For example, say you have a long conductor run and the source voltage is 480 volts. Now the question is, what will the load voltage be?

Right off the bat, you know the load voltage will be less than 480 volts. Because you understand the voltage will drop given the impedance of the long conductor run. This level of intuition is what helps you quickly spot errors in your work.

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. This will help you think intuitively over problems.

“How to study engineering subjects” wrap up 

Learning how to study engineering subjects isn’t a cakewalk. But once you learn, it becomes enjoyable. Even more, your entire engineering career will transform for the better.

Then, one level up to maximizing your studying is to learn how to work like a machine. Your studying will become further optimized and you can more quickly level up as an engineer.

What are the best ways you’ve found on 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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