How to succeed in engineering courses

Many students have approached me with questions about the best way to study and succeed in a course like the ones I have taught at Georgia Tech. Here is a strategy that I have loosely followed in engineering mechanics courses.

Attend Lectures

Not attending lectures is one of the most fundamental identifiers of a student who will have problems in the course. If you are able to skip lectures and learn the material on your own, I think that’s a valuable skill. However, most students do not fall into this category, and attending lectures is going to be absolutely critical. Come to lectures, take detailed notes, ask questions, engage as much as possible.

Review Lecture Notes and Relevant Sections in Text

After a lecture, spend some time that afternoon or evening reviewing the lecture notes. Look back through and think about what was covered. Then, open the textbook and take a look at the material there. If you really understand what was covered in class, all you’ll need to do is skim the textbook. If you are confused about some things, you need to read, REALLY read, the relevant sections. Study, or even re-solve, the examples covered in class or within the textbook.

Solve Problems & Self-Assess Gaps in Understanding

After you have reviewed the material, you need to start solving problems. Nothing will identify gaps in knowledge more effectively than attempting to solve problems. In my classes, homework problems are assigned to accompany every lecture. I will typically only assign odd-numbered problems, where you can check your final answer against the back of the book. Don’t just persist in trial and error until you match the book answer – always be asking yourself if you really get the underlying concept.

If you find that you can’t solve the homework problems, back up and attempt the example problems in the book. Cover the solution with a sheet of paper, and try to formulate each step on your own. Keep going back further in the text until you can find problems you fully understand, and begin methodically working your way forward from there.

Find Peers for Collaboration

Seek out people to collaborate with who are interested in really learning the material and are evenly matched intellectually. Set up regular times to study and work on assignments together. Stay away from folks who are just concerned with a grade and final answers and try to find someone who wants to study ideas together.

Regularly Stop By Office Hours to Fill in the Gaps

You will find that professors are generally very eager to help students who make time to come by during office hours. I personally budget this time so I can be fully available to answer questions.

Come prepared. I suggest bringing questions to office hours after completing all the steps above. It’s really efficient for both you and the professor if you bring your attempted homework solutions to office hours. Your professor can usually look at your solution and quickly identify where the problem is. This approach is infinitely superior to you showing up in my office half way through the semester saying: “I am totally lost in the course and don’t know where to start!”

Track Your Progress

Ultimately you are evaluated primarily based on exam grades, so this is a key metric for you to track. Keep track of your course average in Excel based on your performance to date. There are usually no surprises in how your grades are computed. So, update this file after each exam, and you’ll have a great idea of what type of grade you are headed for. One tip for this file: use the “Goal Seek” function to find out what grade you need on a given exam to maintain a nn% average in the course.

If you are following your grade and appear to be on a negative trajectory, set up an appointment with your professor to discuss your strategy for the class. You can together identify if there are problems in your approach or a topic in the course where we can focus some attention. If you perform poorly on an exam, obviously your habits need to fundamentally change to achieve something different on the next exam. For instance, if you make a 50 on exam 1, it’s unlikely that increasing your effort by 10% will result in a score of 90 on exam 2. I can help you make a significant shift in habits and performance, but only if you take the initiative to set up the meeting.

Know Why You’re There

Only you know what motivated you to study engineering. Whether a dream of designing beautiful bridges or skyscrapers, inventing a breakthrough biomedical device that will save lives, using engineering skills to improve quality of life in developing countries, general improvement of society, or the intrinsic excitement of scientific advancement. Forget grades as motivation – you didn’t choose engineering for grades. Tap into what is driving you and view each course in light of the big picture of what you hope to give this world.

You can read more about me, follow me on Twitter, subscribe to this blog by RSS or email, and find many more posts in the archives.