Do you understand?

As you fathom a topic at increasingly deeper levels, your curiosity about it also increases.

October 26, 2014 05:18 pm | Updated May 23, 2016 04:04 pm IST

Illustration: Satwik Gade

Illustration: Satwik Gade

Many articles on education, including previous ones in this column, urge students and teachers to place a premium on understanding as opposed to rote learning. Instead of merely regurgitating the text in exams, students are encouraged to understand the content. At the same time, educators are being asked to test for understanding. Thus, in addition to straightforward questions, most exam papers nowadays have a few HOT (higher order thinking) questions that are meant to stimulate and promote students’ grasp of material. But as a student, how do you know whether you have understood a chapter or lesson?

The concept

First, you need to remember that understanding is a process rather than a fixed end state. No matter how basic a concept is, our understanding of it evolves and gets more refined with age and experience. Look back to a rudimentary arithmetic concept that you learnt in primary school. Most children are introduced to the idea that division is repeated subtraction, around class II. Then they learn the procedures for short and long division. As children get more practice performing division in classes III and IV, they gain a deeper understanding of terms like ‘quotient’ and ‘remainder.’ Children also realize that some numbers are exactly divisible by others, while others are not. Once they have acquired a hold of division of whole numbers, children’s understanding of division becomes even more layered as they are exposed to fractional numbers. With whole numbers, a child knows that you end up with a smaller number when you divide it. How does the child make sense of the fact that when you divide three-quarters by a quarter, you get three? The concept of division gets more nuanced as children are introduced to decimal numbers and the world of rational and irrational numbers.

Thus, as the child progresses through higher grades, his/her understanding of division gets more complex. Likewise, if you are studying the structure of carbon or polynomials or the relationship between inflation and interest rates, your understanding of these concepts will be rudimentary at first but will grow more refined as you encounter it in different chapters and study related concepts. So, while understanding is never an end-state, you may still improve your current understanding by using the following techniques.

When you read a chapter from your chemistry or economics textbook, ask yourself if most of it makes sense to you. If you understand the meaning behind what you read, then you should be able to state it in your own words. You may realise that you comprehend the gist of the chapter but are confused by certain details. A second reading often helps clear up confusions. In order to make sure that you understand and remember factual and supporting details, you may read and summarize one subsection at a time.

Another effective way to bolster your grasp of the material is to ask questions as you read the text. If you are able to frame questions, your ability to answer them will also improve. Moreover, see if you can devise different types of questions including some that require higher-order thinking. Typically, these questions cannot be answered directly from the material given in the text. Rather, the student has to apply what is described in another context or make an inference that is not explicitly stated.

One of the most effective methods to improve your understanding is to teach the material to someone else. You may either study with a friend and explain sections to each other, or you may just pretend that you are teaching someone else. As you try to explain a concept to another person, even an imaginary one, you may notice gaps in your own understanding, which you can then fill by asking your friends or teachers relevant questions.

Further, for some subjects and concepts, you can only gain understanding by doing. Maths is a prime example where you learn primarily by working out sums. Passively reading the examples in your text or notebook is simply not enough. Likewise, you have to balance equations in chemistry, and solve physics problems on your own.


According to educationists, Tina Blythe and David Perkins, “understanding is a matter of being able to do a variety of thought-provoking things with a topic, such as explaining, finding evidence in examples, generalising, applying, making analogies and representing the topic in new ways.”

Thus, you can enhance your comprehension of a subject by looking at it from various angles and performing different exercises that allow you to penetrate it at varying depths.

Further, as you fathom a topic at increasingly deeper levels, you may find that your curiosity about it also increases. You will then realise that understanding is an eternal journey filled with hurdles but laden with umpteen surprises.

The author is Director, Prayatna. Email:

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