Let’s talk about effective learning. In the next 8 lessons, I will share some ideas on how learning works and provide insights for wisely selecting and structuring your learning experience as you’re preparing for the FE exam.
It’s natural to learn. Learning is done every day. Want to learn a new sport? Want to learn to cook? Want to learn a language? Want to learn how to pass the FE exam or learn how to learn? To learn something, you need to use the right resources. You can choose from hundreds of resources. But how can you get the most out of these resources and the overall learning experience?
A teacher is a crucial part in helping you learn effectively. Much of what teachers do affects learning outcomes. If your teacher is skipping important steps, not explaining steps, not asking you to think critically, not asking you to think about questions – they’re likely not there to teach.
You can find better teachers. There are lots of incredible teachers out there that will explain THE REASONS FOR THE STEPS.
But let’s focus on you. As a learner, you can be either effective or ineffective. To be an effective learner, you must not just passively accept learning as you would chill in a boat waiting for the wind to move the boat. You have to steer your boat while considering various interacting forces. You must play an active role in shaping your overall learning experience.
To be an effective learner, you need to do three things:
- Set Meaningful Learning Goals
- Use Effective Learning Strategies
- Assess and Adjust Your Progress
In this post, we will talk about the first step in Setting Meaningful Learning Goals. Future posts will cover effective learning strategies and how to assess and adjust your progress.
What is the first step in setting meaningful learning goals? Study and Learn from Expert Thinking and their Worked Examples
Setting meaningful learning goals is difficult because you need to have a good understanding of what “meaningful” goals are for whatever you’re trying to learn. For something like FE and PE, one way to do this is to actively study teachers, tutors, and even worked examples. Remember that you are not studying the person or their personality. You are trying to study their thinking process, their way of thinking, and their well-crafted examples.
The more the examples reveal expert thinking, the more effective the examples tend to be in helping you learn.
Let’s take a look at an expert engineering student. They do not just memorize equations. They look at the problem differently and notice the deep structure that applies to it. For example, the law of conservation of energy or the derivative is used to find the slope of the tangent for each possible application. They see relationships such integrating the acceleration function gives the velocity function and integrating the velocity functions gives the position function. In contrast, new learners look for superficial features such as equations, inclined planes, cables, etc. Most of us start at this level.
There will be experts in every field. These experts have highly organized knowledge structure in their brain that gets translated into lessons and worked examples. Studying these will be an ongoing part of your FE learning experience or any learning experience!
How can you study the actions performed by an expert?
You will need to identify a task performed by an expert, or a series of interacting steps that demonstrate a working solution. What does the expert do first, second, and after that to reach the final answer?
Don’t get fixated on the final answer or final solution. But focus on the steps to reach that final answer or conclusion. You need to practice breaking down the expert’s performance into learnable components.
Take an expert professor of engineering as an example. What can you do? They can probably solve many of these FE problems in their area of expertise. Their goal is to solve the problem. But what were the steps that led them to this goal? What process did you use?
It is very likely they have a process they apply to analyze the FE type questions. How are they reading the problem statement? What do they do first? Are they writing down and defining the given variables? What prior knowledge do they have that guides them in the right direction? Are they thinking internally without verbalizing their thoughts?
Always ask yourself this: what are the steps and how did they know to do this or that to solve the problem?
As a simpler example, let’s look at an expert chef cooking. What does the chef do? They can make some tasty meals. The meal is the finished product. But what were the steps taken that led to that finished product? They had to plan the meal, pick quality ingredients, clean, prepare, chop, etc, etc.
We are far from capturing everything an expert engineering professor or an expert chef does to produce the right solution or a quality meal. But, at least we are beginning to think about how we can break down the process into something we can learn.
Talk to an expert and ask questions.
Your expert may be a teacher, tutor, staff, classmate, or member of a study group. You are also an expert because you may know one area better than another. Experts have valuable insights into their practice. To get where they are, they often reflect on what they do and why they do certain things.
You can ask questions like: “Why did you take this step? “How did you know to apply this equation and not that?” “What do you look for in a problem statement before beginning a solution?” You are moving close to seeing how the expert organizes their knowledge.
Observe an expert or expert-written solutions.
It is common for experts to forget to describe the steps they take. After doing something for so long, it becomes natural for them to skip over the details. This is unnatural for any starter. Active observation can reveal hidden practices.
You may observe an engineering professor drawing a free-body diagram, but this is the key moment isn’t described. Noticing this will give you the chance to learn what experts have not clearly stated. From there, you can ask questions, and fill in the knowledge gaps necessary to arrive at a final answer.
How can these ideas help?
For something like the FE exam, learning is about NOT becoming an absolute expert in all the sections. Remember, this exam is designed to test the fundamentals of engineering, and it will be an impossible task to know everything at an expert level. But you will need to take small steps and walk down the path toward expertise leading up to your exam date.
When you don’t know what an expert solution is conveying, what procedure is taken, why this procedure is taken, or how the solution presents an overall structure, you are likely not learning effectively.
The Ultimate Goal
If you’re currently preparing for your FE exam. Your textbook or resources may organize the content in a coherent way. However, you should keep your end goal in mind:
Read and solve FE type problems in a time-efficient manner by mimicking real test conditions.
Look at your study material: Are they missing important expert-like thinking or worked expert solutions that will help you move towards this goal? If it is, you may want to reconsider using these resources and look for those designed to help you learn all the skills relevant to this FE exam.
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