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Three Science-Backed Study Methods to Study for the PE Exam

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Studying for the PE exam can be difficult and overwhelming. Where do you even start?

Luckily for you, I have done extensive research on what study techniques are the most effective and how to prepare for the exam. In this article, I will share three research-based techniques that will help you learn more in less time and ultimately ace the PE exam.

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When it comes to studying, most of us have a preferred method of doing it. Over the years, my way of studying has changed depending on my career stage and how much time I have to do it. With time, our knowledge and ability to learn change. Our study techniques should also adjust to that.

Musicians practice their instruments. Athletes practice sports skills. The same should go for learning

“If you want to be able to remember information, the best thing you can do is practice,” says Katherine Rawson. She’s a psychologist at Kent State University in Ohio. A study from 2013 showed students who took practice tests over several weeks scored more than a full letter grade better, on average, than did students who studied the way they normally had.

Another study made college students read the material and then took recall tests. One group only took one test while the second group took several tests with short breaks. The second group recalled the material better a week later.

These techniques by themselves will not help you pass the exam. You need to be willing to put in the effort and hard work it takes to prepare for the test.

One statistic that helped me during my preparation was the passing rate. For the Civil PE Exam, the pass rate is around 60%. Do you want to be better than the 40% that don’t pass? You need to be willing to put the effort to be like the over 60%.

Spaced Repetition

This technique is simple yet powerful. I utilized this technique for my own study because it is backed by science to help you remember material better. It works by spacing out your studying over a longer period of time and revisiting and reviewing your notes at certain intervals.

Think back to an equation or concept you have used at work over and over again. I almost guaranteed by now it is part of your knowledge. You don’t even have to look it up. That is the power of spaced repetition.

To implement this technique, look at all the material you need to learn. Create a study plan to revisit each section at various intervals (i.e. 1 week, 2 weeks, etc…). If there are specific topics you are struggling to learn, study those more often and with time spaced them at longer intervals.

Here is an example of what this may look like:

  • Day 1: Study the material.
  • Day 3: Revisit and review.
  • Day 5: Revisit and review.
  • After two weeks: Revisit and review.
  • After four weeks: Revisit and review.

Spaced repetition is why I decided to start studying over four months in advance. I wasn’t necessarily putting 30+ hours of studying right away. Instead, I was learning the material and reviewing it to make sure I wasn’t rushing through this process.

There are various ways to keep track of your study sessions. You can do it old style with pen and paper or by creating a Google Sheet with topics and dates. I personally did all my planning in Notion to keep track of my study sessions.

If you want to take Space Repetition to the next level, pair it with the Active Recall practice technique. To do this, write down questions that relate to the topic you are studying. For example, What is the Modulus of Elasticity of steel? Then, you would say the answer to that question – The Modulus of Elasticity of steel is 29,000 ksi.

There are several tools you can use to implement Spaced Repetition and Active Recall. Some of them include RemNote, Notion, Google Sheet, or simple note cards. The key is to have the ability to see the questions without the answer to test your knowledge.

PQ4R Method

PQ4R stands for Preview, Question, Read, Reflect, Recite, and Review. This method is similar to Active Recall and it is designed to help you absorb the material over a longer period of time with various “touch points” so you can better understand what you are learning.

Here is how you can implement each of the steps.

  • Preview: Take a first pass at what you are trying to learn. Don’t worry about reading every single word. This is designed to help you get a broader overview of the topic without jumping into any specifics. As a first step, this is great because it eliminates the need to try to learn everything at once.
  • Question: As you skim the text, think about what areas you feel more confident in and which areas need improvement. Mark them with a tab or highlighter so you can find them easier later on.
  • Read: This is where you focus on those areas that need more improvement. Read them in more detail.
  • Reflect: Did you answer all of your questions? If not, go back and see if you can find the answer.
  • Recite: Summarize what you are learning in your own words. This ensures you are actually learning what you are studying. Taking an active role with the material will ensure better information retention.
  • Review: Go back and repeat the process. Focus on topics you are struggling with as well as those you feel more confident about.

The PQ4R Method is a step up from Spaced Repetition and Active Recall. It ensures you are not only reviewing the material but also engaging and creating your own notes and summaries.

At the end of the day, just reading from a textbook won’t cut it for this exam. You need to take an active role in this process. I created my own notes and saved them for future reference. They have come in handy even after the exam.

Feynman Technique

The Feynman Technique is great for those who like to learn by doing. This method is simple. Study the material, create a summary, and teach it to others. That’s it.

Now, let’s dive deeper into how and why it works.

  1. When you are studying try to identify the key points of what you are trying to learn.
  2. Create a simple summary of what you are learning by using simpler concepts. Think – Will a 10-year-old understand what I am saying?
  3. Go back and review your notes.
  4. Finally, teach it to someone else.

The Feynman Technique makes you be more hands-on with the material you are learning. Using this method you are not only ready and summarizing the concepts but you also need to understand them well enough to explain them to others.

Another way to apply the Feynman Technique is to record yourself explaining the topic and posting it on social media. This will give you feedback on how well you understand the material.

Mind Mapping

Lastly, Mind Mapping is a great method for the visual learner. Using this method your can let your imagination flow. I enjoy applying the method when I need to connect various topics together. This is especially important for the PE Exam because sometimes you need to know how one concept relates to a completely different one or how a section of the code affects how you answer a question.

To implement this method, consider the following steps:

  1. Start with a blank piece of paper and write your central topic in the center.
  2. Look at what you are studying and try to identify how they connect to the central topic.
  3. Start adding sub-topics to each of these topics to map out the various relations.

This method works great if you are struggling to understand the connection between various concepts. It may be challenging at the beginning. You may just need to stare at a blank sheet for a while until the material starts clicking for you.

There are several tools to help you make this process better. You can use other apps like RemNote to connect thoughts or sticky notes that you can re-arrange as you develop your network of ideas.

There you have it. Four science-backed study techniques to help you learn better.

If you are struggling to learn and haven’t really changed the way you are learning, give one (or multiple) of these techniques a try.

For more techniques and resources to prepare for the PE exam, check out my advanced PE Study Guide. The guide will help you prepare for the exam with science-backed studies, industry-leading resources, and accountability along the way.