Whether you like or not – we are all in a feverish state of learning new things. Whether it is to learn how to use a new process at work or how to use the Windows operating system or how to handle a new automated torque wrench – we are all learning. Particularly in engineering there are a ferocious number of new technologies and approaches hitting us almost every day – all which we need to learn if we want to keep up to date in our career.


The tragedy is that most people are learning the wrong way. This gives a short note on how to do it right and save yourself a huge amount of time and get ferociously good results.

And, as you know – if you are good at learning, you will definitely have an advantage in life and business. So it is worth refining one’s techniques to be a top notch engineering learner.

And by the way - these chunks of advice below are all from proven research. Not mumbo jumbo intuitive stuff which is not true.

Bad Learning Techniques to Avoid
Probably the most commonly used technique is that of rereading of text (and cramming) until you believe you can remember a particular segment. This undoubtedly makes you feel familiar with the material and makes you believe you can achieve mastery. Unfortunately, you tend to have difficulty applying this form of learning to a particular situation and also tend to forget this material very quickly.

Intuitively, we tend to believe that massed practice of material again and again is the way to go. However, this also doesn’t stick and you quickly forget it.

A few suggestions below on highly effective techniques.

Highly Effective Techniques

1. Retrieval Practice
Probably the most effective one is retrieval practice. This is where you self-quiz yourself after completing reading a section of text. Don’t look at the text but try and recall it. And the harder it is to recall the material, the greater the benefit for you and the longer you will remember it.

2. Space out your Retrieval Sessions
Allow some time to elapse before self-quizzing yourself on a particular section. The longer the time gap between reading a section of text and self-quizzing yourself, the stronger the longer term memory will be. Naturally, it is harder but worthwhile for longer term recall.

3. Interleave with other Problems and materials
Mix up your study materials. If you are studying a new HVAC system – mix up your study of the mechanical, electrical and control aspects of the problem.

4. Elaboration/Generation/Reflection and Calibration
Other ways to fire up your learning to new heights is the use of Elaboration (finding new meanings or ways of understanding the material); Generation (try and explain a particular piece of material before studying and then comparing what the approach really is); Reflection (pondering on the materials) and Calibration (comparing your real understanding of a situation with what actually occurs).

5. Application and Hands-on

Finally, where possible – try and apply your knowledge to a real situation. After studying how to tune a process control PID loop; actually tune a loop on a real plant and see what happens. See how the material you learned is actually applied to a real situation.

Finally, where possible teach what you have learned to a keen and eager student. Perhaps, your husband or wife. When teaching you will uncover all sorts of problems with what you have learned.

And as someone remarked to me last week: the most powerful form of learning occurs when the student becomes the teacher and the teacher becomes the student.

Thanks to: Make it Stick: The Science of Successful Learning by Peter C. Brown, Henry L. Roedinger and Mark A. McDaniel.

Bob Edwards remarked: A little learning is a dangerous thing but a lot of ignorance is just as bad.

Yours in engineering learning,