FE Exam Problem Solving Tips

FE Exam Problem Solving Tips

Let’s talk about problem solving. To pass this FE exam, you are required to decide on your own how to approach each problem. For the most part, all of us are predisposed to apply different problem-solving strategies after going through extensive undergraduate engineering courses.

But here’s a question I have for you today:

Are your problem-solving strategies really working?

Many of us never really got the chance to build the patience and determination to learn how to breakdown problems, struggle through them, and reflect on the mistakes we’re making. We kind of just went through the motions in school without giving much thought to our study structure and problem-solving strategies.

There are probably multiple reasons why we were forced into this position. Engineering school is fast-paced. It’s too fast-paced. Imagine having a due date for four homework assignments in the same week, then I ask you: So what strategy did you use to solve your homework problems? What mistakes did you make? How did you learn from your mistakes?

You’ll probably think, “I hope this guy is kidding….”

In short, unless you started early on, engineering school isn’t structured that well in the sense of giving us the right tools to “problem solve.” Oftentimes, we were forced to take shortcuts—to just google it, copy those solutions, just “turn it in”. Ultimately, we’ve likely carried over these “bad study” habits as we tried our best to prepare for this FE exam.

But now is a new start…….

I always like to think our FE exam preparation will be different. Think of it as a fresh start. A new start where you can build on what you already learned in school Even if you’re 20 or more years out of school, what you learned never really goes away.

But I do challenge you to tear apart every single bad study habit you developed and gradually work towards building new study habits. Study habits rooted in doing the hard work. Study habits revolve around patience and persistence, no matter how many times you fail. Study habits where you’re intrinsically holding yourself accountable. It’s these study habits that you can always rely on to tackle any problem you face on your FE exam.

Now let’s discuss probably the most crucial learning habit one has to gradually develop while preparing for their FE exam: Problem Solving

Problem Solving

For the FE exam, we cannot just use a formula and plug-and-chug to get an answer. Well, not for most problems. There are often multiple ways to solve a problem, not all of them equally easy, so before you begin, you need a plan or strategy. This seems to cause a lot of students difficulty.

Struggling FE exam students often say things like:

“I don’t know where to start with the problem.”

“I made a silly mistake.”

“You make it look easy.”

“If I only knew which equation to apply, I could solve the problem.”

These statements indicate that most students think they know how to solve problems but are skipping the crucial planning step. They jump right into writing equations and attempt to solve the problem without making much progress. Or they start to solve a problem using a reasonable approach but get stuck or abandon it midway to try something else. They get lost, confused, frustrated, and give up.

The best way to think about the problem-solving strategies you can use is to think of them as tools in your toolbox. This toolbox always starts with fundamental principles. This is your basic math: algebra, trigonometry, vectors, and so forth. For example, solving statics problems isn’t so much about using equations; it will require us to use your existing toolbox and acquire new tools, choose these tools, and use these tools. Some problems can be solved with a single tool, while others require multiple tools. As you practice lots of FE problems, you need to become familiar with and get practice using your tools.

FE exam Problem Solving Tools

With lots of practice, your problem-solving skills and understanding will improve. It gets easier to recognize the most efficient way to arrive at that final answer. Ultimately, you’re bound to build your toolset so that you feel comfortable solving problems on your own without giving up too easily.

Like most skills, choosing the most appropriate strategy to solve FE problems gets easier with experience. Unfortunately, the best way to get experience is to solve hundreds of relevant FE-style problems. There is no magic formula; there are no shortcuts; there is no way around it.

Here are some suggestions that will help you become a better FE problem solver:

  • Review fundamental mathematics. Get fluent with the math skills from algebra and trigonometry. These are linked to many FE topics: calculus, statics, structural analysis, and so much more!
  • Cover the fundamental concepts before diving into problem solving. This can be in the form of reading material or, even better, short lecture videos discussing concepts.
  • Study experts worked out solutions. But don’t assume that just because you understand how someone else solved a problem that you can do it yourself without help. The real test is whether you can solve the problem on your own, using your own problem-solving strategy!
  • Practice lots of problems, starting with simple ones to build your skills.
  • When practicing problems, read the problem statement slowly. Write down all the given information and make it an absolute goal to really know what you’re trying to find. Never “just solve” a problem without knowing what you’re given and what you’re trying to solve for.
  • Solve problems using multiple approaches but stick to one that makes sense to you. If your approach always gives you the right answer, it’s likely the best. If not, explore alternative approaches.
  • Draw neat, clear, and labeled diagrams. It will be messy at first, but you’ll get better at it with more practice.
  • Familiarize yourself with the applications, assumptions, and terminology of the methods covered in class and in the textbook.
  • When confused, identify, and note down what is confusing you, then ask questions.
  • When you make silly mistakes, such as a simple unit conversion or forgetting to write a term, note down this mistake and make it a goal to avoid these mistakes the next time around.

These are general guidelines to make you start thinking critically about your problem-solving approach and be more conscious of your chosen strategies to solve problems. This reflection will help you learn more quickly and increase the odds that you choose the right tool to tackle these FE problems.

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