right arrow
Informational Message Stay on top of the information you need to navigate the admissions process amid the COVID-19 pandemic. We've got articles, videos and forum discussions that provide answers to all of your test prep, admissions and college search questions.   Visit our COVID-19 resource page.

Introducing Kai!
Your College Confidential guide bot.


Kai can provide tips and support as you research and apply to colleges, and explore majors and careers.





Chat with Kai
here, 24/7!


or Skip Forever

IMPORTANT NEWS: CC Forums are now in read-only mode as the team is working on the transition to a new look with enhanced features. We anticipate full service on the site to return on Nov. 24. Read more about this here!

Why is engineering so hard?

danmamdanmam 174 replies21 threads Junior Member
edited March 2009 in Engineering Majors
This might seem like a dumb question, but why do engineering students need to study so much?

At least in high school, math and physics seem like a "you get it or you don't" type thing. Hours and hours of studying won't change that.

I know college is nothing like high school, the math is considerably harder, you take other classes, etc. But I guess my question is, what exactly do you study in all that time?
edited March 2009
210 replies
Post edited by danmam on
· Reply · Share
«13456711

Replies to: Why is engineering so hard?

  • AeroEngineer3141AeroEngineer3141 3579 replies28 threads Senior Member
    Well, what you plan to build in engineering can get very sophisticated (strip your phone down to the core and see if you can reassemble it), and it's extremely important that you get it done right. There's no partial credit for a bridge that is only half-way collapsed.

    There are loads of information that you need to learn and retain, and it takes hours of studying and applying to keep it in your head.
    · Reply · Share
  • sakkysakky - 14561 replies196 threads Senior Member
    Yeah, but that by itself doesn't explain why the curricula is so hard. Think of it this way. At many top engineering schools, i.e. MIT, the mean score on the exams is often times around a 50%. If you're scoring 70%, you're probably going to get an A because the courses are graded on curves. But think about what that means. That means that even the very best students at the top schools are still getting 30% of the answers wrong.

    I'll tell you about an extreme case. I know a guy who once scored a 30% on his engineering exam...and celebrated. Why? Because the mean was a 25%, and according to the curve, his 30% translated into an A. Sure, that guy knew practically nothing on the exam. But that didn't matter. What mattered, for the purposes of grading, is that he knew more than the average student in that class, who knew even less.

    So, I think that speaks to the real reason why engineering students have to study all the time. It's not really because they truly need to know everything and get everything right, because you can't. Engineering exams are generally structured such that you can't answer all of the questions correctly, and they know that you can't answer all the questions correctly. For example, back to the example above of the test whose mean was a 25%, even the top score was only something in the 50's.

    But what that means is that there is always more material you can study. There is always more time you can put in. For example, take that guy who scored the 30. If he had studied even harder, i.e. broke up with his girlfriend so that he could devote even more time to studying, then maybe he could have scored a 40. He was happy with the 30 because it meant an A. But, the point is, if he really wanted to, he really could have spent even more time studying to score even more points on the exam. Hence, there is always the temptation to give up your social life and sleep for even more studying.

    What compounds the problem is the competitive nature of the grading. Engineering courses, especially weeders, tend to use harsh curves, which means that some people always get stuck with terrible grades, and so each student is fighting to make sure that it isn't him. Hence, anytime that you're not studying, you suspect that some of your competitors are studying, and they might break the curve and hence relegate you to a failing grade.

    For example, again, back to that exam where the mean was a 25. Scoring a 30 meant you got an A. But scoring a 20 basically meant that you failed. But, honestly, what is the practical difference between a 20 and a 30? Either way, you understood hardly anything that what was going on. But, for the purposes of grading, that doesn't matter. It doesn't matter that you don't really know what is going on. All that matters is that you score more than the others do.

    So think about what that means. It basically means that there is no natural "stop" to your study time. If you study hard for 8 hours a day, why not 10? Why not 12? Why not 16? After all, maybe your competitors are studying 16 hours a day. There is always more time you can put in, depending on how much pain you're willing to tolerate and how much of your social life you're willing to sacrifice. There is always the temptation to study more, especially during the weeders when you're just trying to study "enough" to avoid flunking out of school, with the problem being that you don't know what "enough" is. Is 8 hours a day enough? Is 12? You don't know.
    · Reply · Share
  • JoeJoe05JoeJoe05 653 replies7 threads Member
    I know college is nothing like high school, the math is considerably harder, you take other classes, etc. But I guess my question is, what exactly do you study in all that time?

    You just explained it yourself. College is nothing like high school. College physics and math are nothing like high school. What are we studying? Our classes. What classes? Math, physics, and engineering.
    · Reply · Share
  • Dauntless9Dauntless9 354 replies2 threads Member
    Math and physics in high school is a joke compared to math and physics in college. I never studied for math or physics at all in high school, yet did well, because it was mostly a matter of knowing how to use the equations, and plugging in the right numbers. In college, I study my butt off constantly just to stay afloat above a furious storm of psi's (or, the devil stick as we call it), deltas, and epsilons.

    The difference? The pace of classes. This probably isn't actually typical at other colleges, but for example my first math class covered a theoretical, proof based version of Calc I and II in 10 weeks. Subsequent math classes have been admittedly easier than that, but still at ridiculous breakneck speed. Generally, the courses move very fast, with homework and exam questions typically much more advanced and complicated than what's covered in the examples in the notes. Knowing how to plug numbers in the equations is the bare beginning of what's necessary to solve the problem usually. And quite a bit of the time, questions I have are proofs, requiring you to synthesize all the various things you know to prove some obscure property about vector spaces, or electron orbital energies, or induced current in a coil rotating in a magnetic field.

    And of course, even when you know how to solve it, the math isn't always trivial either. On a quantum mechanics set I had two weeks ago, after you set up your initial system of equations to describe the energy and wave properties of a particle encountering a square potential barrier to solve for transmission and reflection probabilities, the sheer math involved to solve the system to get the probabilities took me 4 hours and 4 sheets of a solid wall of algebra to solve, using just about every trick we knew. The people working with me on this problem included former RSI participants and USAMO qualifiers. 4 more questions and 5 hours later I was able to actually start studying for my OChem quiz that was in 4 hours. And to beat you to the punch, yes, I would have loved to start all this work before the night before it was due, but I'm taking a standard engineering courseload for where I go with 3 more courses that have comparable amounts of work night by night. I was one of many that pulled an all-nighter that night. Heck, that was an accurate description of every Tuesday night this term for me.

    As for Sakky's comment on low scores, in third term OChem last year, there were several quizzes where the median was a 0. Curve that. The median person, who had studied all night long, and memorized all the reagents/reactions, could not solve any of the mechanisms, even partially.

    I guess I kind of rambled about my own experience a bit too much, hopefully to give you an idea of just what it is we're spending so long studying, but my main points (which hopefully came across) were that:
    1. Engineering coursework is really hard, and there's a lot of it
    2. You don't even know what real math and physics are yet
    3. Don't be a ChemE
    · Reply · Share
  • carneliancarnelian 318 replies9 threads Member
    well, you need to remember in hs physics and math classes, the teacher has a lot more time to go over the material, and seldom expects you to learn the material by yourself.

    However, in college, there are is a heck of a lot more material in a class, and a heck of a lot less time. Since the professor can only teach so much in 16 weeks, they expect you to learn a great deal of it on your own. Unless you plan to sit and derive the formulas on the test, you basically have to know the material before you can apply it, so it does'nt matter how smart you are, you still have to study.

    Also, the concepts are a lot more abstract. They cant be expalined as easily using numbers as hs coursework. This is especially true in classes like differential equations.
    · Reply · Share
  • GShine_1989GShine_1989 617 replies18 threads Member
    This whole topic gets blown out of proportion every time it comes up. It's not that hard. Reading through threads like this you would think engineering is a horrible boot camp from hell where only the highly gifted or non-stop working machines make it through. That's what I thought back when I was reading CC in high school. It's just not true.

    For one thing, your grades are largely decided by major exams (midterms, final) that come around two to four times a semester. You would only need to study intensely as these approach (and pretty much everyone does). The rest of the time it's homework, projects, and labs. These you simply work on until finished. So it's not something like an exam where you might feel compelled to put in more and more time as sakky said. Yeah you really need to clamp down and study when they do come around, but that's only a few painful days every semester.

    And there certainly is an element of "you get it or you don't" in all this as the OP said. I've taught the discussion session for the introductory course in EE at UIUC, which is something of a weeder - you can easily pick out the smart ones and the ones that are bound to switch out to another major. Sure time spent studying matters, but some people are good at this stuff and some aren't. It's not all a mad panic to study more than the other guy.

    What does get to you, though, is the volume of the work (i.e. homework & labs). It can get heavy sometimes. But I feel this is necessary. Maybe it's just me, but I don't get much out of lecture. It's when I do the homework and labs that I understand things.
    · Reply · Share
  • Roger_DooleyRoger_Dooley Founder 6083 replies100309 threads Senior Member
    Excellent discussion. Certainly, part of engineering is a "get it" thing. I know I always seemed to be behind the learning curve while in engineering school and often resorted to memorizing concepts vs. truly understanding them. A few years later when I studied for the PE test, though, all of those impenetrable concepts clicked together neatly, and what had been difficult now seemed almost easy.

    Sakky makes some good points about the depth of information and how often even top students may get less than half of the quiz or test content right. I recall quite a few tests where a 25 out of 100 was reason to rejoice.

    The absolute nature of engineering also puts a premium on hard work. If pressed, I could glance at a summary of a work of literature or philosophy and put together an essay that would be worth at least a C and, if I got lucky, maybe even an A. Try that approach to studying for an engineering midterm, and quite likely you'll get a zero.
    · Reply · Share
  • TreetopleafTreetopleaf 2680 replies41 threads Senior Member
    Why is engineering so hard... why do engineering students need to study so much?

    I have no doubt in my mind that I left engineering school with a very different brain than the one I entered with. All that hard work physically changes the structure of your brain i.e. makes you smarter. If it was easy, nothing would change.
    · Reply · Share
  • carneliancarnelian 318 replies9 threads Member
    Treetopleaf:

    Believe me, hard work does not make you any smarter. Your IQ is what it is. Your IQ is only a measure of how much of your brain you can use, however, through hard work, you can learn to maximize your potential.

    So hardwork can allow you to use more of your brain, however, you will be no "smater"
    · Reply · Share
  • JoeJoe05JoeJoe05 653 replies7 threads Member
    Believe me, hard work does not make you any smarter. Your IQ is what it is. Your IQ is only a measure of how much of your brain you can use, however, through hard work, you can learn to maximize your potential.

    So hardwork can allow you to use more of your brain, however, you will be no "smater"

    Disagree. A person's IQ changes through time due to the development of their brain. The brain develops through stimulation I.E. studying, classes, labs, homework, etc. Assuming you are in your 20's while in college, your brain is still developing.

    Also IQ is not the only determinate of being "smart". A person's overall knowledge base is probably a more common assessment. A person can have a really high IQ but chose to not to advance their education beyond high school. Now who is smarter, the person with a 130 IQ with a high school diploma or a person with a 110 IQ who has an EE degree?

    Besides I would hope I'm going to be smarter when I graduate college than when I entered!
    · Reply · Share
  • morethanevermorethanever 59 replies26 threads Junior Member
  • JoeJoe05JoeJoe05 653 replies7 threads Member
    Good read morethanever

    More reason as to why IQ and intellegence are two different things.
    · Reply · Share
  • al6200al6200 1513 replies66 threads Senior Member
    Well, IQ tests measure the common factor (called the general intelligence factor) of different intelligences and mental abilities. So one could have a low IQ, but still be talented in one specific field.
    · Reply · Share
  • TboonepickensTboonepickens 991 replies46 threads Senior Member
    First of all let me preface my following statements that the actual workings of the brain are very complex. The pathways of knowledge development, spatial relation, and memory are all very intricate physio/psychological mechanisms, and truth be told we do not know that much about them. We do understand the basic function of the brain and its parts, but above that there is still much debate (IE, do neuro-networks continue to develop after a certain age).

    With that said, IQ is not a set measure of intelligence, but rather a standard measure of intelligence. A test is developed, that when administered to a population, it will generate a normal distribution with a mean score of 100, and a set standard deviation (historically, it is set at 10). An IQ score is not a concrete number, but rather a score that shows your relative performance as compared with the population of test takers. Marilyn Savant, the highest IQ scorer had "official" IQs that ranged between 167 and 230. This is in part due to the high variance that is exhibited at the tails of the distribution, and partially because each test is fundamentally different.

    Joe- Whether your actually physically possessed intelligence maximum can increase after your formative stages is still a contested proposition. Your IQ score may increase, but only because you have developed better spatial relations/verbal skills problem solving strategies, but not actually developed a better physiological brain.
    · Reply · Share
  • sakkysakky - 14561 replies196 threads Senior Member
    For one thing, your grades are largely decided by major exams (midterms, final) that come around two to four times a semester. You would only need to study intensely as these approach (and pretty much everyone does). The rest of the time it's homework, projects, and labs. These you simply work on until finished. So it's not something like an exam where you might feel compelled to put in more and more time as sakky said. Yeah you really need to clamp down and study when they do come around, but that's only a few painful days every semester.

    Well, I don't know about that. Sure, the exams come around only a few times during the semester, and during the other weeks, you are occupied with homework, projects, and labs. But what if you get done with that? Can you relax? No, because you feel the need to study for the exam. Sure, the exam may not be close. But you know it's coming, and, what's worse, if you're not spending time studying for exam (in addition to all of the hw, projects, and lab), you suspect your competitors probably are.

    I'll tell you this. Back in my heyday, I doing the final preparations at least 1, and preferably 2 weeks before the exam periods. Note, that doesn't mean simply starting studying. That means final preparations. Which means that I have already been studying for the exam throughout the semester, which means that I had already studied all of the material of the exam, and hence, I am now engaged in complete "practice" mode: practice questions and answers, drills, etc. {What that also means is that I had to constantly be studying "ahead" of each lecture, because that's the only way I could build up a 2-week buffer for pure practice drilling.}Yet even then, the constant temptation was to stretch the prep mode to even longer than 2 weeks, because my competitors might do so, and I knew I needed to beat my competitors if I wanted to avoid failing.

    Personally, I think it's the competitive nature of engineering programs, combined with the harsh grading curves, that is the real problem. There is no such thing as "good enough". No matter how hard you study, you will never know everything, and you fear that your competitors will still beat you.

    Furthermore, even if you "lose" to your competitors in, say, a humanities class, as long as you do the work, you're still going to pass. Maybe not with a great grade, but you're still going to pass. But losing to your competitors in an engineering class can actually mean flunking.
    And there certainly is an element of "you get it or you don't" in all this as the OP said. I've taught the discussion session for the introductory course in EE at UIUC, which is something of a weeder - you can easily pick out the smart ones and the ones that are bound to switch out to another major. Sure time spent studying matters, but some people are good at this stuff and some aren't. It's not all a mad panic to study more than the other guy.

    Well, maybe if you're a dispassionate observer, and especially if you can see all of the data, you can pick out who can survive and who can't. But not if you're actually in the game.

    Just think about it from the eyes of the student. As a student, in the beginning of the semester, you don't really know how good the other students are. You don't know for sure where you really stand. So, sure, maybe you can figure out that you are better than some of the other students in the class, but you certainly can't confidently conclude that you're actually going to be one of those who makes it.

    Now, I agree that there are ways to gather more information about where you stand relative to the class. For example, as homework and test scores begin coming in, you can gauge where you stand relative to the rest of your class. But even that is not complete information. For example, in most classes, the final exam is worth the bulk of the points. You can do well on the homeworks and midterm exams, but still bomb the final and hence fail. You don't know. Since you just don't know, the temptation is to simply pile on more and more study time, to decrease your odds of failing. The problem, of course, is that the appetite for studying is insatiable: you can always do more. Is it that uncertainty, combined with the real danger of flunking, that pushes people to keep studying more and more.
    · Reply · Share
  • JoeJoe05JoeJoe05 653 replies7 threads Member
    I think the main problem with this discussion is the definition of "intellegence". Many of you seem to put a discrete value on intellegence.

    The thing that set me off was that someone previously said that a person cannot become more intellegent through hard work. I completely disagree with that.

    Intellegence to me is a combination of one's acquired knowledge (whether that be in one area or not) along with a person's ability to solve problems.

    I am a firm believer that no one is born intellegent or not. Do you think Einstein was born a physics genious? If he had not had any academic study do you think people would still call him a genious?
    · Reply · Share
  • carneliancarnelian 318 replies9 threads Member
    JoeJoe5 I think we agree, we just seem to be disagreeing about the vocabulary.

    Basically, what I previously said was that you have the brain you are given - "ain't nothin you can do 'bout that".

    However, you most certainly can develop what you have been given through hard work. But at the end of the day, your brain will set the boundaries of what you can understand.

    Yes, Einstein was a genius because he had a huge IQ, so when he studied physics, he understood it much better than average people, like me, would. Remember, academic study alone does NOT make you a genious. Some of the dumbest people I know have PhD's or some other terminal degree.

    Think about it like this: two students might take the same class, say advanced calculus. They may have had the same preperation in previous classes, and both may spend the exact same amount of time studying, mabe they even study together. However, one has a much higher IQ than the other, and understands the material much better, and scores 10 points higher on the exam.

    Like I said, one student's brain is capable of much more than the other. He has a higher intellegence quotient which means he can use much more of his brain.
    · Reply · Share
  • TreetopleafTreetopleaf 2680 replies41 threads Senior Member
    From the article linked in post 12:
    Eric Kandel of Columbia University in New York, who won a Nobel prize in 2000 for discovering much of the neural basis of memory and learning, has shown that both the number and strength of the nerve connections associated with a memory or skill increase in proportion to how often and how emphatically the lesson is repeated. So focused study and practice literally build the neural networks of expertise. Genetics may allow one person to build synapses faster than another, but either way the lesson must still be learnt. Genius must be built.

    Sure, your gains are limited by native intelligence, but without "focused study and practice" you won't grow. That's why engineers need to work hard in school.
    · Reply · Share
  • pbgator1pbgator1 27 replies0 threads New Member
    Engineering is not that bad. It is difficult because you have to keep up with the material and that takes time. Engineering is NOT that competitive....gimmie a break.
    · Reply · Share
  • furyshadefuryshade 233 replies10 threads Junior Member
    this is a pretty futile discussion. every engineering program is different, it is pretty obvious who went to a school that was focused on competition between students and a school that was focused on cooperation between students. different schools can use very different teaching philosophies, so saying that someone is exaggerating or complaining too much probably just means you had a different type of experience.
    · Reply · Share
This discussion has been closed.

Recent Activity