Number. 20 © CDTL 2003
Knowing is Not the Same as Understanding: What is Understanding?
Professor Y.K. Ip
Department of Biological Sciences / Associate Director, CDTL

Many students equate ‘to know’ with ‘to understand’. However, ‘knowing’ something is not the same as ‘understanding’ something. Worst still, students may take knowing the ‘definition’ of a term as understanding the ‘concept’ of the term, both of which are actually quite different.

Governed by the ‘learning as knowing’ metaphor, many students regard the teacher as a dispenser of information and themselves as the receiver of information. They aim to increase the amount of knowledge that they possess. They believe that learning outcomes can be evaluated by measuring the amount of knowledge acquired.

However, learning involves getting the ‘meaning’ of the knowledge. Meaning is generated by the interplay between new information and existing concepts in the students’ mind. Without existing concepts, information can have no meaning. Learning is achieved through students selecting relevant information and interpreting it through their existing knowledge. As Resnick (1989) aptly noted, “learning occurs not by recording information but by interpreting it”. Hence, students are not recipients of knowledge but constructors of knowledge. How the student structures and processes knowledge is much more important than how much is learned. Structuring and processing knowledge means that students must ‘select’, ‘organise’ and ‘integrate’ new information with prior knowledge in their mind. To do so, each student must acquire metacognitive (reflective) skills
for controlling his/her cognitive (thinking) process during learning.

So, how do you understand something? To understand is ‘to comprehend’, and to comprehend is ‘to take in’ or embrace. Seeing solitary facts in relation to a general principle is the essence of understanding. What is an understanding then? An understanding is a generalised meaning or insight. An insight is a basic sense of, or feeling for, relationships; it is a meaning or discernment. A tested generalised insight is an understanding; it is a meaning or discernment that one may profitably apply to several or even many similar, but not necessarily identical, situations or processes. The most valuable insights are those confirmed by enough similar cases to be generalised into an understanding. A student understands any object, process, ideas or fact if he/she sees how it can be used to fulfil some purpose or goal. The outcomes of a collection of understandings are generalisations, theories, generalised insights, general ideas, concepts, principles, rules and/or laws.

How do you achieve understanding? Well, ‘how’ you approach learning (strategy) depends on ‘why’ you want to learn it in the first place (motive) (Biggs, 1987). If your desire to learn springs from the urge to gain a paper qualification with minimal trouble or effort, it is likely that you will focus on what appears to be the most important topics (as defined by examinations) and reproduce them. Because of this focus, you will not see interconnections between elements or the meanings and implications of what is learned. However, if your motive to learn is based on curiosity, you will adopt a strategy to seek meaning. There is a personal commitment to learning, which means that you will relate the content to personally meaningful contexts or to existing prior knowledge, depending on the subject concerned. You will search for analogies, relate to previous knowledge, theorise about what is learned, and derive extensions and exceptions.


Biggs, J.B. (1987). Student Approaches to Learning and Studying. Victoria: Australian Council for Educational Research.

Resnick, L.B. (1989). ‘Introduction’. In L.B. Resnick (Ed.). Knowing, Learning, and Instruction: Essays in Honor of Robert Glaser. Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum, 1–24.


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