fe exam

How to stop forgetting what you studied for the FE exam.

Are you forgetting what you learned a few days ago or last week? How can you ensure that you are on a path to passing the FE Exam without forgetting the material?

Several weeks ago, I was asked this question by a fellow engineer/student preparing for his FE exam.

“How do I not forget what I learned and practiced from the previous section?” “What do you recommend I do to not forget important concepts and equations?”

This question caught me off guard and I honestly did not know how to answer it or what to recommend. So, I just vaguely said “Oh so you need to do a lot of practice questions, use the FE Exam Handbook, blah, blah blah.” Obviously, that did not help. 

After briefly researching and thinking about this question, I came across something called the “forgetting curve (graph)”, shown below. I hope you love curves (graphs) as much as I do 😄. 

The Forgetting Curve

Simply put, the forgetting curve says that we will always have an exponential decline in memory after learning something new. This means the information we learn is lost over time if there is no attempt to retain it. The graph also hypothesizes that we tend to decease our memory by 1/2 in a matter of days or weeks unless we make an effort to review the learned material

So, for the FE exam, depending on the person, most of us will likely forget a lot of the newly acquired information if we do not make a conscious effort to review what we learned.

If we focus on the Civil FE exam, it covers an astounding total of 14 sections. Mind you, these are basically 14 different courses! How the heck are we supposed to retain all of that information without forgetting? Let’s reframe this question and ask: 

“How can I structure my study time to consistently review the material in an efficient matter where I do not constantly waste my time going back to what I have already studied?”

Short answer: Never go too long without reviewing. 

Let me proposed two techniques. Test these out and see what works best for you. 

Technique #1 

This technique is simple. One day, every single week, you are literally doing nothing new. No new FE exam sections, no new practice problems, no new facts, no new anything. Your only job for that day is to just repeat the information from the past week and to review your notes from earlier weeks. 

Technique #2 

Let us say you have a 2-hour time block: 

  • 1) 20 minutes review
  • Quick breather
  • Study new information
  • 5 min break 
  • 2) 15-20 minutes personal equation sheet/note taking/active writing  

1) 20 minutes review

For example, if you’re about to start the Mathematics and Statistics (B. Single-variable calculus – Integrals), spend the first 20 minutes reviewing what you learned from the previous study session (Ex: Derivatives). Review your personal notes, equation sheet, diagrams, etc. Do NOT just review the equations, the logic and concepts are the most important.

Tip: I also recommend to apply the same strategy transitioning from one subsection into another. For example, if you are about to start section C. Vector operations from scratch, spend 20-30 minutes reviewing your notes/concepts/calculation notes/equation sheets you developed from the previous section B. Single-variable calculus. Focus on the concepts and the logic!  

2) 15-20 minutes personal equation sheet/note taking/active writing

Finish off your study session by spending the last 15-20 minutes by actively developing your own notes/equation sheet with plenty of diagrams, exam tips, unit conversions, definitions, etc., for that specific section. 

Tip: The timing is not set in stone. It largely depends on the difficultly of the subject and on your overall understanding of the material. Always ask yourself: “I’m I understanding what I just reviewed and learned?” 

With this method, you will ensure that you are never too far removed from the material for a long time. The combination reviewing and active writing for each study session will help flatten that forgetting curve and ensure we are storing information in our long-term memory. 

I would love to know about your study strategy and techniques that you may be using right now to help you not forget what you learned. I hope you found this helpful as you are preparing for your exam. In the meantime, I wish you the best.


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