As I’ve written in post after post in the main section of this blog, there is a huge difference between memorizing something and understanding something. Memorizing is being able to recite the words. Virtually everyone can make sense of that part of this equation. It’s a basic concept that’s taught from the earliest years of your schooling. Understanding is a much more interesting and powerful process. Once you make sense of it, it can change the way you think about… well… thinking.
Understanding’s dictionary definition is too broad to use in most practical contexts. Understanding is often described by professionals in complex terms and checklists. Instead professionals in education have created long and complex methodologies to describe it, and in my humble opinion, make themselves look good. I’ve always found a simple explanation of understanding to be the most powerful.
Understanding is just pattern recognition.
When you start recognizing the patterns, you’re understanding. The more patterns you recognize, the more you understand. Ultimately, recognizing the patterns allows you to think “creatively” with the pattern. A great author can recognize patterns in a great story. A great musician can recognize patterns in a song. A great mathematician can recognize patterns in a great equation. With those patterns recognized, they can add to the patterns with their own ideas (and it will end up making sense to other people that recognize similar patterns.)
This understanding unlocks the potential to look like you know more while technically knowing less. If you know the pattern then you don’t need to know every entity in the sequence. After you know the pattern, you can just figure out the individual entities using that pattern.
If want to know if you understand something then you need to start asking yourself questions you don’t already know the answer to.
Ideally, these question shouldn’t be based on facts. They should require a certain amount of interpretation.
If you’re a musician you might ask, “What chord would sound good after an A minor?”
There are tons of reasonable answers for this depending on the context.
If you’re a mathematician you might ask, “How do I solve for X in this problem?”
In math there is almost always more than one right way to find the solution to a problem. The final answer may have a right or wrong answer but the steps you take can be decided upon creatively.
If you’re a writer you might ask, “What is a good hook for this story?”
As you can imagine, there are countless hooks but you’ll have to stick around until the end of the article for examples. (Yes… that’s a joke.)
You might think this question is all about finding right answers but that’s only a small part of it.
The first thing you want to look for is your own confidence. Can you answer your question? More importantly, can you answer your question in multiple ways? Often, the more different answers you can give, the better you understand it. Since you should have asked a question with more than one right answer, the actual correctness of all your answers isn’t completely essential. If you’re confident then you’ve probably wrapped your head around something.
If you have trouble solving it then can you solve it using some kind of a research tool that doesn’t include asking an expert? Can you google it? Can you look some things up in your textbook to solve it? If you can solve it in this way then you may or may not understand it.
If it just required a little reminder then you may understand it but require a little memorization to help you on a test.
If you are surprised by what you learn looking it up then you probably require some more depth into the subject to understand it.
If you can’t solve it then don’t despair.
Most people don’t understand most stuff. Realizing you don’t understand something is the first step for learning it. You cannot learn what you think you already know. As long as you’re sitting on your high horse thinking you’re too awesome to learn anything new you won’t learn anything new.
Not understanding something isn’t a problem. It’s an opportunity.
Practice this process repeatedly. Asking the right questions is where you have the most room to make mistakes. It’s more of an art than a science. By asking the right questions you can be confident you understand what you need to understand. By asking the wrong questions, you’re risking overconfidence in what you know.
After class, start asking yourself questions about the lecture. Try to ask questions that would have multiple answers. The better you’re able to come up with and answer those questions, the more you can choose to focus on memorization.
Understanding is awesome for those early points in a class. That being said, understanding has diminishing returns for most students just looking to improve their grades. If you already understand a subject well then you can usually see a larger grade improvement through memorizing what you might forget. After you understand, you can expect to do well. From that point you can memorize the important stuff, to prop your grade near the top of your class in less time than you’d ever guess.
When it comes to grades, that’s my preferred strategy but to each their own.
Using a simple strategy like this one you can maximize the efficiency of the time you spend studying. It can help turn your 15MSS (15 Minute Study Strategy) into a top of the class style strategy with 5% of the actual work.
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