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
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
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.