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How to study technical subjects

Some of the things I wish I knew before starting my degree.

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I have come to (almost) the end of my Mechanical Engineering Degree. I started off with Civil Engineering then changed to Mechanical Engineering and ended developing facial recognition technology for my honours projects. It is, therefore, safe to say that I have had a wide range of experience in processing information from different technical fields. In this experience, I have also learnt how to learn technical subjects, so today I will be sharing some of the things I wish I knew before starting my degree.

Principle over Procedure

The way most technical subjects are tested is in the student’s ability to perform tasks. Let us take something very simple like:

5(x) + 1 = 6, find x?

Most people can look at this and easily identify x=1 through trial and error. From a combination of high school mathematics and common sense they could easily find the answer, however, the same people might struggle with:

5x + 3y + 7 = 13x + 15y – 3, Find x in terms of y?

The principle behind both problems are the same but the approach could be different. When learning technical subjects it’s important you understand the principle and not just how to solve a particular problem. This ensures an ability to take that knowledge into a wider range of contexts. For this, I would advise doing a wide range of problems. Tutorial questions are usually a good way to do this but sometimes not sufficient; you can challenge yourself by googling, ‘The hardest (insert topic) question” and examining the approach to solving it.

Iterations make a habit

This is pretty much another way of saying practise makes perfect but I did not want to be that cheesy. I have found that once I understand a topic, the way to ensure I remember it is through practice.

An extremely important practice habit I have developed is doing the same question over and over again. If you attempt a question and get it wrong, you should take time to understand why you got it wrong. I try and make a list of all the mistakes I make and it does wonders in ensuring I do not make those mistakes again. In addition to that, it is important that you are able to solve that problem correctly and comfortably. By comfortably, I mean that you are not second-guessing any steps and you are sure your solution is right. This level of comfort can let you focus on the accuracy of what you are doing.

I used to make a lot of ‘silly mistakes’ which I thought were because I was not paying attention but in fact, I was paying attention but on how to solve the problem not the accuracy of my solution. I know that being comfortable with every solution only happens in an ideal world (which we do not live in) so a workaround for this is check over the accuracy when the problem is completed. This means you go through the problem twice with two different hats. The first hat is asking ‘what approach do I use to solve this?’ and the second hat is asking ‘Have I made any mistakes are both sides of the equals to sign actually equivalent?’

Put it in context

As students in technical fields, most university courses are focused more on the understanding of theory rather than real-life application. This makes sense because there is no point focusing on the real-world context if you do not understand the theory. This is especially true for more abstract concepts in mathematics. Nonetheless, everything you learn in a technical field does have a real-world application. The key is to find what this could be. When you are able to put a problem into context, it allows for a deeper understanding of the content. When there is a deeper understanding of the content, it is easier to understand and adapt principles instead of following procedures. Through my university experience, I have found topics I had worked on in my internship experiences far easier to understand because I could see the context.

I hope this has been helpful for anyone looking to improve their performance in studying technical subjects!

Stephanie Anani

Mechanical Engineering student, graduated in 2020

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