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3 Signs You Don’t Understand What You’re Studying

don't understand what you're studying text with image of notebook

By Katie Azevedo, M.Ed.

It’s a crummy feeling to think you’re prepared for a test, only to realize too late that you don’t actually understand the material.

Our brains have this obnoxious tendency to avoid pain, and while I suppose this is essential to our survival as a human race, it can also lead us to believe we’re more prepared for a test than we really are. 

In other words, your brain will work very hard to convince you that you know what you’re studying to avoid the pain of admitting you don’t understand the material.

In this blog post, I share three signs that you don’t understand what you’re studying as well as you think you do. These are not signs you want to ignore.

I published a YouTube video recently called Why You’re Bad at Taking Tests. It’s related to the topic of this blog post, so I suggest you head there after you’re done here.

3 Signs You Don’t Understand What You’re Studying

You might be thinking of course I know when I understand something or not. I don’t need to read about the signs. Oh, how I wish this were true. But the reality is that we are not always the best judge of things during times of stress. And the truth is that studying can be stressful, which clouds our judgment.

Sign #1. You can’t explain the material out loud to someone else.

The ultimate test of whether or not you truly understand what you’re studying is if you can explain the material to someone who’s not familiar with it. If you are unable to summarize and explain something to someone else, it means you don’t fully understand it yourself.

When you’re reviewing your notes and looking through your textbook, you run the risk of falsely believing you know the material because you recognize it. But recognition is not the same as the ability to generate the material from your own brain, with nothing in front of you.

Sign #2. You can’t answer questions without looking at your notes.

This may seem obvious, but it’s a clear sign you don’t understand what you’re studying when you can’t answer questions without looking at your notes. 

Throughout your study sessions, you should be doing practice quizzes and sample questions that simulate the test you’ll be taking. If you can’t answer these questions without quickly peeking at your notes, Googling the answer, or flipping over the flashcards you’re using, then you don’t understand the material well enough.

When you use active recall study methods such as the Feynman Technique and the Blurting Method, you’re forced to face the reality of whether or not you truly know the material you’re studying. And this, my friend, is why you should only ever be using active recall and nothing else.

Sign #3. You have memorized the information word for word. 

You might think that memorizing what you’re studying is a sign that you know it, but the opposite is true. Memorizing information word for word does not mean that you understand it. And it most certainly doesn’t mean that you can apply that information to questions on a test.

For example, if you memorize that the word “punctilious” means “meticulous,” but you don’t know what meticulous means, then you’re not going to be able to use the word punctilious in a sentence on your test.

Another example is if you memorize the definition of the vagus nerve for your anatomy exam. The definition you memorize is “the vagus nerve is the main component of your parasympathetic nervous system.” It’s one thing to memorize these words, but if you don’t know what the parasympathetic nervous system is, then you don’t know what the vagus nerve is. 

Memorizing material does not allow you to apply that information on a test. When teachers design assessments, they ask you not only to know what things are, but how to use that information in various contacts on various questions. Memorizing does not allow you to do this. 

Here’s my full tutorial on the difference between comprehension and memorization. It will be helpful.

An Important Note About Your Mindset

One of the keys to making sure you understand what you’re studying is to change your mindset around what you’re learning. You might roll your eyes at the word mindset, but please don’t. 

If you believe that the whole purpose of school is to just get a good grade or get credit, then you’re missing the entire point. And believe it or not, that mentality makes things so much harder. If you actually take the time to learn what you’re being taught and to study the right way, then tests and assessments become so much easier.

It’s when we take shortcuts on studying (these don’t really exist) that we fool ourselves into thinking we’re cheating the system. But this always backfires. Using passive study techniques and relying on simple memorization might make your study sessions feel easier, but that’s because you’re not truly learning the material. 

Learn what you need to learn for real, and the test will take care of itself.

The post 3 Signs You Don’t Understand What You’re Studying appeared first on SchoolHabits.

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