Don’t ‘Learn’ it, ‘Understand’ it!

When it comes to strange and fascinating facts, it’s no surprise that some are kooky enough to take hold of your brain and stay with you for quite some time. But read too many silly facts and you won’t remember them all.

If it’s hard enough to remember something outrageous, how difficult must it be to remember everything you need for an exam?

The answer is in the way in which we learn things.

Nose and finger (Stockholm) - photo by cranberries

After reading some useless trivia, you’re not given the encompassing reasons behind the facts. There’s nothing to take with you other than the figures themselves. Because of this, you’re only able to learn that information. You haven’t been given the tools to fully understand why the answer is structured the way it is.

Your revision can go two ways too. On one hand, you can try digesting the hard facts, arguments, opinions, quotes, and statistics in isolation of the bigger picture. If you’re lucky, you’ll get a vague grasp on the wider implications and remember most of the facts so you can cobble something together under exam conditions.

On the other hand, you can take in the bigger picture first, truly getting to grips with the how and why of what you’re studying. If you’re faced with some facts that you need to learn, you’ll have a greater chance of remembering them if you ask yourself where this information fits in and how it works.

Lecture Room (Birmingham) - photo by jisc_infonet

Your aim is to understand what you’re revising, rather than learning it by rote.

It’s not that good students pick this stuff up with ease. The secret is more that they ask questions and get background on what they don’t understand. When you’re given certain information to learn in preparation for an exam, things can go two ways:

A good student says, “I don’t understand this. I can see it’s important and clearly needs to be remembered, but how does it fit in with the bigger picture? How did this fact come to be?”

A half-hearted student says, “This is so difficult to learn. It just won’t go in. Why can’t I remember this kind of stuff? I don’t understand it anyway.”

Both types of student are in the same position, but one is willing to go beyond the surface in order to get a fuller understanding of the subject. Yes, it may require a little more time and research, but it’s not going to take much longer, so the payoff is good.

In fact, any research that takes a good student too long becomes a false economy…so they don’t do it, natch! The main thing to remember is to always keep one step ahead. It’s one thing to be clueless about an entire subject, but it’s another to waste too much time on a small area that’s difficult to perfect. Even the best students have blocks and difficulties. You need to know when to stop obsessing and start relaxing.

If you can develop the mindset to ‘understand’ and enhance your working, you’ll be well on the way to some quality revision and a confident state of learning.

In my next post, I’ll set out five tips for revision that will help focus your revision even more clearly.

Techno-Cafe - photo by jisc_infonet


  1. Hi

    I am ‘A half-hearted student’ 😦

    When it comes to something too difficult i leave it worry about it later. Exam time just revise enough to pass i dont learn it and remember it but understand it and forget it when the exams are done.

    So i think ‘learning’ is more significant than just ‘understanding’.

    Any way, i’ve read great advice given by people such as yourself and others and have been done so for a long while on this and many other sites, but never have i been able to apply any of it properly. Dont know why.

    Look forward to your 5 tips…

  2. Mini-essay alert… πŸ™‚

    I used to be a half-hearted student too.

    I spent very little time on any work, but knew I was able to get enough marks to achieve the grades I wanted.

    It took a real kick to move me beyond a half-hearted approach. But I’m glad for the kick!

    Before my uni days, I worked toward some exams that I knew I’d pass, but only just. However, one day I didn’t get the grades needed to get where I wanted. My half-hearted approach had finally showed me that I couldn’t always flit past on learning a few things just to scrape a pass.

    I further realised that I wasn’t making the most of my potential. This made me consider the future. I wouldn’t be able to spend my entire life lazily getting by, which is pretty much what I was doing.

    That’s when I picked myself up and made a determined change. I decided to work those grades back to what I needed, get to where I wanted to be, and do my very best not just to remain on track, but to also get as much benefit as I could from the opportunities that presented themselves to me (on educational, social AND extra-curricular levels).

    The funny thing is, it didn’t take very long for me to realise that I’d been shooting myself in the foot. Pushing myself that little bit further was more enjoyable and took a similar amount of time to deal with anyway. And the more I enjoyed it, the easier it was to develop my learning and understanding.

    My change in attitude took place before university, and I agree with you insomuch that ‘learning’ has unfortunately become more significant than ‘understanding’ in a number of school and college subjects. However, in starting to focus on more than just learning one or two things by rote, the understanding helped me to learn my subjects better anyway.

    Once you get to undergraduate level, there’s scope for so much more if you can truly ‘understand’ your subject and beyond. I don’t think memorising a few facts is going to cut the mustard, so I immerse myself in the bigger picture and that works well for me.

    In order to apply the advice you read on blogs like this, I think you need an initial desire and willpower to take things further. As you say, you’re doing enough to pass. So until you have reason to seriously question this method (like I did), or until you desire to further yourself beyond a certain ‘comfort point’, it probably will be a struggle to apply the help and tips to the max.

    Nevertheless, you’ve come as far as reading a number of blogs like this for a while (thanks for stopping by!), so I wish you all the very best of luck in your studies and hope you achieve all that you want.

  3. The problem with students these days is they’re too exam-oriented, but they can’t be blamed. At least not in Malaysia, where the entire primary and secondary education systems places a lot more emphasis on the grades achieved that the actual amount of knowledge that a student has absorbed.

    But of course, that system doesn’t work in the university, where lecturers employ a different method of assessing the students. And that’s when things get a whole lot more fun.

    Learning becomes an enjoyable process, and a student isn’t burdened by the fact that “his entire future depends on one single exam” because we have things called “continuous assessments” πŸ˜€

  4. You’re right, pelf. Students can’t be blamed for being made to work in order to pass an exam (very different to understanding something).

    And even once at uni, there can be a shock between the first year and second year of a degree in the UK. Most first years are able to simply pass their essays and exams with minimum pass marks, because they have no – or little – bearing on overall degree marks.

    While some Freshers are happy to make the most of their first year and knuckle down in the second, other students find the change hard to adapt to.

    I agree that learning becomes an enjoyable process if you focus more on the subject than on the exams and grades. When a person’s mindset is focused away from the enjoyment, the work becomes a lot more difficult to handle.

  5. I realised after my GCSE’s that i needed to do more work and work harder. Having decided and realising the need for working harder i managed to failed my first year at alevel :?. So i retook my AS levels, managing to pass with decent grades without any extra effort other than revising like crazy in the last few weeks. A2 i got really bad results, which if it wasnt for my AS grades i would have failed.

    So basically, every year since GCSE i’ve said to myself, next year i will work harder and achieve better, except it just doesn’t happen. I do just enough to pass and it seems im use to just that.

    Im in my final year at uni and knew this was/is my last chance to get at least a 2:1 if i work really hard, but again i’ve not worked for it so far. I really dont know why πŸ™‚

  6. @MC, maybe it’s because you achieved what you needed by doing shedloads of revision. You had found success again, so the urgency stopped. Just a thought…I may be barking up the wrong tree entirely!

    Ask yourself, how badly do you want that 2:1?

    One of my friends wanted a 2:1 and knew they had to put the work in for their final year. But they didn’t muster up enough willpower in the end to make enough changes, so only got a 2:2. Still, it hasn’t caused any trouble…in a few short years, they are now in a pretty high-ranked position in a well-known company (lucky thing!).

    You might like to listen to the latest edition of Lifehack Live. An interview with Scott H Young touches on some of the points we’re discussing (how far we bother, methods of working, how grades aren’t the magic answer, etc., etc.):

  7. I listened to most of it, i just dont get how this guy does all what he says.

    As for how bad i want the 2:1 yeh i want it a lot but thats not enough motivation. I dont know ill see how it ends up.

  8. @MC. Good luck with the work. I hope you find your motivation. You might want to speak with tutors and student services to:

    a. See if they can advise you in person and on a more personal level;
    b. Find out if there are any workshops at the uni that deal with study, motivation, time-management, etc.

    Worth a try and worth the time.

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