General Advice

Written by Alex Hiller

With contributions from:
Peter McLean, Pratiksha Chuttar, James Moessis, Nicholas Berriman, Joshua Mendez and Alastair Bate


These items are ordered with no particular significance.
Each can be read in isolation.

1. Master the fundamentals

Understanding the basics that are taught in first year will catalyse your learning in later subjects. Even if the amount of study done exceeds what is expected in assessments, this will pay off later on in your degree. This is particularly true with the “Mathematical Modelling” and some “Intro to ____” subjects.

More specifically, for those going on to study more Electrical/Electronic subjects our personal opinion is that the following will be most useful:

KVL, KCL, circuit branch relationships, linear algebra, Gauss-Jordan elimination, differential equations, complex numbers and in-depth familiarity with the unit circle.

2. Treat mathematics and physics like tools

The mathematics and physics learnt in our degrees is what is used to understand a system, model it and make inferences about how it will behave. It’s how we can theoretically posit a realisable (buildable) system.

Looking at these subjects through this lens makes it apparent that they are the techniques with which something is made possible.

They are tools of design.

Logically, it follows that the more mathematics and physics you are equipped with, the more flexible, comfortable and extensive you can be when practicing as an engineer.

There’s obviously a limit to this, because spending all of your time learning physics and maths would mean you spend no time actually developing designs. But having an extensive repertoire of well-understood tools can only aid you when you do.

3. Learn how to teach yourself things from textbooks and the internet

There will come a point when something just doesn’t click. It might be that the teaching style of the subject is not working for you or the resources available don’t make a lot of sense. At this point (and really, from the moment you begin university) you have to take learning into your own hands.

Seek out reputable resources of information. Textbooks are great once you become comfortable with reading them. There are also a myriad of online resources. If you don’t know what Khan Academy is, you should. And if the content isn’t available there, try typing the topic name into YouTube.

It’s better to consider your courses as a prompt to learn x, y and z, rather than the course serving up x, y and z on a platter.

By taking your learning into your own hands, you’ll initially feel cheated that you’ve had to teach yourself. But it turns out it’s much more rewarding to direct and titrate your own learning. Also consider that this is what you’ll have to do in the workplace should you be required to understand something you were never taught in university. Best to become well practiced in teaching yourself things now.

4. Tie the things you’re currently learning about to things you’ve already learnt

There’s nothing harder to recall than random facts, phone numbers, capital cities and numerical values of physical constants. It’s because they’re not tied to anything. They’re just pure information.

Humans are a species that relies heavy on story-telling. We’re social creatures that are evolutionarily predisposed to retain information that focuses on people, heroines/heroes, complications, resolutions and triumphs.

You should do the same with the information you store in your brain. You’ll find it’s much easier to recall when you string it to something you already know and form a narrative about the way they’re interconnected. Arguably this is why teaching someone else is so helpful in learning, because you have to actually deliver that narrative in order for them to learn.

5. Tweak your approach to studying

You might think you have your studying practice down-pat. Or perhaps you just wing it each time you sit down. What you did in high school, your other degree or in a workplace might not always work now.

Be willing to intermittently take a moment to be meta and address how it is you’re going about your study, how effective you think you are and how you could be better. Take pointers from other students and be willing to test out new approaches.

6. Take on projects in your holidays

Tinkering and making is a great way to learn. Creating something that you need is also an extremely satisfying feeling. You can also add the project to a portfolio of work. You also undoubtedly learn valuable skills on the way.

If you’re stuck for ideas, consider using the Arduino microcontroller or RaspberryPi and attempt to reconstruct many of the projects on websites like Adafruit and Hackaday.

7. Read about your field

When you hear about a certain individual having made contributions to mathematics or the progress of your engineering field, I encourage you to look up who they were on Wikipedia. Have a read, begin to establish a historical context of what you’re learning about.

There’s a few reasons for this. It develops a narrative around what you’re learning but it also indicates that the techniques you’re learning are only recently developed (relative to the time-line of existence for humans). It’s best to understand the historical context of where knowledge has come from because it gives you an idea of how theory can be translated into practice. It becomes apparent that the fields of mathematics, physics and engineering are not simply static reservoirs of information, but dynamically changing endeavours, contributed to by thousands of people.

Side note on Wikipedia: Many people have been told not to trust it at some point in school, but the reality is that it’s a great place to get an introduction to a topic or learn about who someone is. Though it’s definitely not a place you would cite in a report or assessment, mainly because of its ability to be edited by anyone (which arguably is also its strength).

8. Don’t be afraid to make mistakes, they’re a fast way to learn

Having a feedback loop is a great way to get onto the correct path. This is true for both control systems and for studying.

There’s an issue with this though, because the reason you’re doing engineering is likely that you’ve gotten into university by considering mistakes a bad thing and attempting to minimise the amount that you make. This works in high school, but can inhibit you in university.

Be willing to be imperfect, make approximations, ask “stupid questions” and be only concerned with figuring out what is true. Do not take each mistake as a personal comment on your character and instead focus on rapidly getting to the reality of the concept you’re trying to understand.

9. Focus when you study

Multi-tasking is the enemy of deep, retentive learning.  Facebook, Twitter, Reddit and all your other concerns should be pushed to way-side. Set aside a finite amount of time to work on university content with no distractions in an environment you’ve found conducive to study in the past.

If you find it hard to not pick up your phone, there’s an app called Forest that gamifies staying focused, which is highly recommended.

10. Actively filter and reword what you write when learning

Research has proven that the act of writing is more effective in learning than typing or simply reading.

Let’s consider the situation of a lecture. A lot of people can type as fast as people speak, which means that no filtering is required for taking notes with your computer. But when writing by hand, it’s almost impossible to take verbatim notes of what people are saying. A filtering process, wherein you have to reword what is been said in a more concentrated way, means that you have thought about and processed some of the information.

Another example is when studying by yourself. Copying notes can lead to some retention, but paraphrasing and restructuring textbook content (and even including information from other sources) can help you produce a better interconnected web of information. It may take longer to produce notes this way, but the information will remain with you for much longer. This means you’ll spend less time revising the notes. Rather do it right the first time, right?

11. Be consistent

This is probably one of the most valuable pieces of advice you can follow. Setting up a weekly study plan can help with being consistent, but some people find that restrictive and repetitive (and that’s ok too —  you just have to figure out an alternative solution). There are a variety of ways to be consistent and ultimately we’ll leave that to you to figure out. But let’s just quickly talk about why staying consistent is the smart thing to do.

Your stress levels fluctuate significantly if you don’t consistently work on your subjects. You’ll most likely need to pull multiple late nights to hand in assessments and study for tests. This can lead to intermittent periods where you don’t exercise, socialise with friends or get enough sleep. At the same time, you’ll be subjected to the monotony of working on the same thing for large amounts of hours each day for multiple days. The end result over the semester is that you fluctuate between having a normal life for a small period of time and then periodically dive into “crunch time”. The inertia of this can be jarring.

You might be ok with this paradigm, thinking that “you work better under stress” but this is often a form of personal bargaining so that you can justify procrastinating now. When you have regularity, you can take time for yourself each day to do something you want to do (exercise, socialise or sleep). You can work on the same thing for more hours with less stress if you break up the work over multiple days and do work at a regular frequency — because being able to take time for yourself each day leads to lower stress levels.

12. Study both by yourself and with others

Studying by yourself gives you the ability to read and think. Studying with others allows you to have a conversation and verbalise your thoughts on the topic.

Studying in a group allows you to quickly weed out your misconceptions, but you can’t do this until you have a basic understanding of the content. This means that the best approach is to only study in a group once you’ve done some work on your own.

A word of warning: if you don’t study a topic and try to discuss it with someone else, you’ll end up either not being able to participate in a conversation or run the risk of mistaking other people’s knowledge for your own.

13. If possible, attempt problems before tutorials and read lectures before you attend

This advice may seem a bit obvious, but also a bit unrealistic. It’s sometimes hard enough to be organised to be present at all classes and do assignments, let alone doing classwork ahead of time. But the difference between lectures where you have and have not read the notes is like night and day. In the first read-through you will likely have many uncertainties about the process of the calculation or the reason behind a certain industry standard.  It also gives you ammunition to ask questions, making more use of the lecture/tutorial time. Spacing out the time you spend on a problem gives you the ability to digest what it is that you’re doing, bring more clarity to the process.

14. Once you understand how to do something, you should use tools to automate repetitive tasks

An example of this is to use a calculator that can manipulate imaginary numbers, converting them between rectangular and polar form.

Another is to learn how to use MATLAB or Octave to write scripts, automating long calculations.

Furthermore, after you’ve done Fundamentals of C Programming (or some C programming) it’s quite an easy transition into learning the programming language Python. Python can allow you to easily automate a large amount of tasks on your computer because of the vast amount of libraries/modules that have been developed for it. Furthermore, some of the weird stuff that happens in Python programming, like passing an array by reference also occurs in C, which makes the transition fairly smooth and enjoyable. If you’re considering this, I would recommend using both Learning Python by Mark Lutz and Automate the Boring Stuff by Al Sweigart.

15. Teach others

Your own ability to assess your understanding is actually quite faulty.  It’s only when you attempt to convey that to someone else that the unapparent blind-spots become obvious for you to work on. It’s also just a great feeling to help someone else out, which is usually reason enough to do so.