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Lesson 2 – Setting Precise, Measurable, Expert Related FE Exam Learning Goals

In lesson 1, we talked about the first step in defining meaningful learning goals – studying expert thinking and expert worked examples.

Today, we will focus on defining the learning goals by breaking them down into definable, achievable parts.

Why would you want to do this? Having a clearly defined learning goal will make your studying much more efficient when compared to just “sitting down and studying.” A clearly defined learning goal will structure your entire learning process.

You may think it is not important to create a learning goal such as: “I want to learn how to pass the FE exam” or “I want to learn statics” or “I want to learn how to use the FE Handbook”. These seem pretty simple. But these learning goals are not very useful. It’s hard to know whether or not you’ve accomplished them. At what point in your preparation would you say you’ve “learned” statics? How would you know that you actually learned it?

This brings us to the main point. Good learning goals are precise, measurable, and relate to expert-defined skills.

Developing learning goals that have these attributes takes time and practice.

Make your learning goals precise and clearly defined.

A precise learning goal should be specific and concrete. If you go back to the learning goal: “learn statics”. This goal is too vague. Statics is a HUGE subject: Force Vectors, Resultants, 2D Equilibrium, Moment of Inertia, and so on. You will likely feel overwhelmed by defining your goal as “learn statics” because this is too big of a subject to tackle all at once.

A better learning goal might be, “to be able to solve 2D equilibrium problems by applying the three equations of equilibrium” or “to be able to solve truss analysis problems by applying the steps required for the method of sections.” Notice how these goals target a very specific skill.

Now let’s take the learning goal, “understand project delivery methods for the construction engineering section.” This goal is still too vague. What does it mean to “understand” something? Maybe you mean something more like the following: “to be able to differentiate between different project delivery methods by comparing their strengths and weaknesses” or “to be able to compare different project delivery methods by examining when a certain delivery method is applicable to certain types of projects”. These revised goals are more concrete.

Make your learning goals quantifiable and measurable

Another mistake students make is not having measurable learning goals. Learning goals are often not useful unless you have a good way of measuring them.

From above, notice how we framed our good learning goals, starting with: “to be able to…” We are deliberately doing this because the best learning goals are framed in terms of what you will be able to do. This all goes back to the expert steps you should be aiming to learn and ultimately do on your own. This type of framing implies that there must be a way to determine whether you achieved your goal: Are you able to do the things you had as a learning goal? – Are you able to do 2D equilibrium problems by applying the 3 equilibrium equations following the appropriate series of steps?

Of course, your learning goals also have to be realistic. For the FE exam, you will often have to build up to more complex learning goals. Depending on your prior knowledge, you may want to first learn the basics before moving on to more complex sections. For example, the learning goal of “to be able to solve 2D equilibrium problems” will come before “to be able to solve 3D equilibrium problems”. If at any time you feel like you’re just not getting anywhere when trying to accomplish your learning goal, it is very likely that you have skipped reviewing important background knowledge needed before moving to a new section. 

How can this help with your FE exam prep?

Many FE exam books and courses will not establish precise and measurable learning goals at the beginning of the course. If this is the case, you will need to try to establish learning goals for yourself.

I am constantly improving and adapting the DirectHUB Civil FE course with this in mind. This involves organizing the FE sections in a coherent manner per NCEES specifications and exposing students to fundamental skills before diving into problem solving.

To reiterate, having quality learning goals will make your studying more effective. You can refer to these goals periodically as both a motivator – “I can now solve a variety of 2D equilibrium problems!” – and a guide for the future.

Creating good learning goals is not easy.  For the next FE section you plan to cover, write down at least three learning goals. Are they precise, measurable, and related to expert practice strategies? If not, improve them.

In the next lesson, we will cover a very important idea that encompasses all effective learning techniques—”cognitive load”.

The video below summarizes everything discussed above. Have a look at it and continue to improve your FE exam learning goals!

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