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Trying to understand how to understand

3 min read

Do you understand the importance of understanding?

Understanding a concept well is important if you want the knowledge to stick, but not many seek it.

Tim Urban has an analogy that compares knowledge to a tree “If you don’t fully get it, it’s like a tree in your head with no trunk - and without a trunk, when you learn something new about the topic - a new branch or leaf of the tree - there’s nothing for it to hand onto, so it just falls away. By [developing understanding], I build a tree trunk in my head, and from then on, all new information can hold on, which makes that topic forever more interesting and productive to learn about.”

Understanding something well helps allows you to create connections between ideas and stores them correctly. It also allows you to learn something deeply, rather than superficially knowing something because you memorised it.

Learning for understanding also leads to higher retention. When you learn facts you can’t relate to, you can easily forget them. When you understand how this fact relates to your existing knowledge, you create hooks for yourself to recall that information.

If you’re a student, your performance will depend on whether you can understand a topic well. Memorisation is also part of the equation, but not as important. Think of memorisation as a tool that strengthens understanding rather than the end goal.

Another problem we face is that sometimes we think we understand something well when we don’t. Psychologists call this the illusion of explanatory depth. It’s really hard to assess how well you understand something. Facts are a different story. You either know the capital of Paris of you don’t.  Understanding, however, is a lot harder to assess because you may understand it a little, but not enough for the purposes at hand.

There’s also the Dunning-Kruger effect in place, where someone with a poor understanding of a subject believes that they know more than the people who do.  When you lack knowledge about a subject, you cannot also assess your abilities.

“The first principle is that you must not fool yourself - and you are the easiest person to fool” - RICHARD FEYNMAN

However, it’s not all hopeless because understanding something can be done.

Ask a lot of questions. One of the reasons for the brilliance of Richard Feynman is his approach to questioning. “Some people think in the beginning that I’m kind of slow and I don’t understand the problem, because I ask a lot of these ‘dumb’ questions: ‘Is a cathode plus or minus? Is an an-ion this way, or that way?”. Most of us are too scared to ask dumb questions. Feynman was smart, but he had no problem asking them. Asking dumb questions made him notice the fine details of what he studied.

Use the Feynman method. Write down the concept or problem you want to understand at the top of a piece of paper. Explain it by writing it down as if you had to teach it to someone else.  If it’s a concept, find a way to explain it so someone in simple terms. If it’s a problem, explain how to solve it and your thinking processes that led you to the solution. If you get stuck while doing this, that means your understanding is failing you. Return to your resources to get the answer.

Since we don’t articulate our thoughts, it’s easy to say we understand something when we don’t. By writing your thoughts down, you articulate the idea you want to understand in detail

“If you can’t explain it to a six-year-old, you don’t understand it yourself” -ALBERT EINSTEIN

Before you learn or review a topic, assess your current state of understanding by asking yourself a series of questions:

  • What do you already know about the topic? Write out as much of what you know from memory.
  • What don’t you know? What don’t you understand? Find out what are the gaps in your knowledge and use them as a guide for your learning.

Ask yourself why 5 times. Let’s say that your car will not start. Why? Because the battery is dead. Why? Because the alternator is not functioning. Why? Because the alternator belt is broken. Why? Because the alternator belt is worn out and not replaced. Why? Because your car is not sent for service regularly.

Practise exam questions. If you’re learning for an exam, doing exam questions are a good way to gauge what you know and what you don’t.

Recall from memory. You can do this in various ways like a summary of what you learned, or making a diagram.

Understanding is important, but many people forgo it. However, you can develop understanding by asking a lot of questions, using the Feynman technique, assessing your level before learning and asking yourself why 5 times.

Effective Learning


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