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Eureka – I understand understanding!

An illustration of a brain connected to a lightbulb

If you understand the subject you are studying your chances of passing the exam must be good.

A simple and perhaps obvious statement but what does understand mean and what do you have to do to truly understand something? Of course understanding is a key part of passing but it is not enough on its own, you can understand something yet fail because you run out of time, misinterpret the question, thought you understood but didn’t, etc.

To understand

The dictionary defines to understand as, to know what someone or something means, to grasp the meaning, to be familiar with, make sense of, etc. Understanding is clearly different to knowing, for example, you may know that gravity is a force that pulls objects to earth but that does not mean you understand what gravity is or how it works. Of course you need both knowledge and understanding, the one is no good without the other. Examiners try to test for understanding by asking questions that require you to compare, contrast, explain, interpret, etc.

Understanding is not a Eureka moment, it has different levels. It might seem that there is a point where you didn’t understand and then suddenly you did, a Eureka moment. In reality what you have done is move closer to gaining a better and fuller understanding. Ask any lecturer or teacher, often they will tell you they never fully understood something until they had to teach it, they just thought they did.

Proving you understand – The 6 facets of understanding

Understanding by design, Wiggins and McTighe (1998) is one part of an instructional design process that provides a very helpful framework we can use to explore the depth of understanding and perhaps more importantly what you can do to develop a deeper understanding. Think of it as a hierarchy with the easiest one first, the greater your understanding the higher the number.

  1. Explain, the classic exam question – Explain to someone what the concept/idea means and say why. Explaining out loud to yourself or making a recording can be just as effective.
  2. Interpretation – Relate the concept/idea to your own experiences, tell a meaningful story. Try to add something personal into your explanation. To do this you will need to reflect on past events, whilst attempting to find parallels with the concept/idea.
  3. Application – Use the concept/idea in a different context. The ability to apply knowledge in different contexts (transfer) is a key milestone in learning as well as understanding. It should result in you never being caught out by a difficult exam question. Understand to this level and it doesn’t matter what the examiner asks.
  4. Perspective – Read around the concept/idea, get other people’s views, and see the big picture. If you’re struggling with understanding, read another text book or my favourite is to go onto youtube and watch a video. The internet is great for discovering alternative views.
  5. Empathy – Try to get inside another person’s feelings about the concept/idea. This is difficult as it requires you to put aside your feelings about the concept/idea and accept that it is not the only way of thinking about it.
  6. Self Knowledge – Ask questions about your understanding, ask what are the limits of your understanding, what are your prejudices, become aware of what you don’t understand. Often called metacognition, the ability to think about thinking.

The Eureka moment

Understanding, like Eureka moments are not of course the result of sitting in a bath and suddenly finding you understand something you had previously found confusing. It is the gift of hard work and long hours of study, hopefully by trying some of the techniques above your depth of understanding will only improve.

Understanding by Design

Want to know more about understanding by design, watch this video.