This is the second part in a series. If you missed part one, you can find it here.
Understanding is the first big step in learning. The basic technique is simply reading the explanation in your textbook, and that’s a fine approach. Unfortunately, when that fails, most people don’t have a plan B (uncontrollable sobbing and pleading with the almighty don’t count), or their plan B is simply to ask the teacher.
We’re conditioned to respect textbooks but some of them are poorly written, littered with jargon, or expect you to have a lot of prior knowledge.
If you’re learning on your own that might not be an option and frankly, it doesn’t always work. I must have asked my college Physics teacher the same questions half a dozen times, walked away thinking that I’d got the answers straight in my head, then forgot them before the next lesson.
My favoured technique for tackling tricky concepts is collecting explanations until one clicks. And when I say ‘collecting’ I mean taking a copy for future reference, whether that’s bookmarking an internet video or photocopying pages of a library book. Just because you ‘get it’ today doesn’t mean you will retain that knowledge tomorrow.
This advice sounds ludicrously simple, but it’s the real solution. We’re conditioned to respect textbooks but some of them are poorly written, littered with jargon, or expect you to have a lot of prior knowledge. We end up re-reading the same lousy explanations repeatedly instead of looking for new ones. Don’t fall into that trap. Have a little faith that a better explanation is out there.
If you’re studying late at night and something doesn’t make sense, revisit it the next morning with a clear head and without caffeine induced heart palpitations. But try to recognise when you need to look elsewhere and make it your mission to hunt down that one explanation that makes it all beautifully clear.
There’s an art to writing clear explanations and, for my money, Kalid Azad of BetterExplained.com is the master. He has a process called ADEPT which stands for Analogy, Diagram, Examples, Plain English explanation and Technical explanation. Looking through some of his writing on tricky Mathematical concepts I thought ‘where was this guy when I was in high school?’. Then I remembered how old I am and thought ‘high school, he was also in high school’.
You should check out his website and if you ever need a tutor to explain something to you, you can send them there and tell them ‘can you set it out like this guy?’.
Sometimes even this tactic fails. When it does it’s usually because you’re a little flaky on the fundamentals. This is an insidious little ‘gotcha’ because it can even trip you up on ideas you already understand if you have not internalised them.
When you learn to drive, until you’re using the foot pedals without thinking about it, part of your attention is constantly focused on that activity. This makes it very hard to build on those skills. It’s the same with anything that requires a lot of complex thought. We have a limited working memory and it’s easily exhausted.
Struggling with concepts can be a sign that you’re trying to learn too much too quickly and need to spend more time working with the foundational ideas on their own until they become second nature.
The gold standard of understanding is being able to explain a concept to others.
Notice when you start to feel out of your depth and learn to ask: ‘is there an introductory guide to this?’. A primer, such as an ‘introductory’, ‘beginners’ or ‘dummies’ guide to a subject can be invaluable for understanding tough material.
Do some more exercises, get a bit more comfortable with them and then try again. This is one reason that last minute cramming can fail. Sometimes we need time for new stuff to percolate a bit and there’s nothing wrong with that.
Out of curiosity, I tried to find a description for a concept that I struggled with for years in college. After reading through five explanations I was about ready to give up but then I remembered my own advice and started searching specifically for a ‘beginners guide’. Within a few minutes I stumbled across one that worked for me. It was like a veil had been lifted from my eyes.
Finding great explanations isn’t the end of the story. The gold standard of understanding is being able to explain a concept to others. It helps enormously to clarify your own thinking, pinpoints holes in your knowledge and helps you to remember it. Even if you’re just talking to an empty chair, the benefits should make it a key part of your study strategy.
- Collect different explanations until one clicks
- Explain concepts in your own words to cement your understanding
- Just because you ‘get it’ today doesn’t mean you will tomorrow, so keep copies of good explanations
- Sometimes we’re not ready for new material and need to spend more time internalising what we’ve just learned