What do you do when you don’t understand something?

Usually I’m the teacher. I’m the one giving the instructions, explaining things, setting homework tasks, and marking work.
However, since October, I’ve been a student too. I started a part-time IT degree in my spare time, and it’s taught me a few things about being a student again.
Some of the things relate to how I can be a better teacher – I’ll touch on those in the next post that I write for teachers – but today I want to talk about that horrible feeling when you realise that you don’t understand something.
I’d forgotten what that feels like. Of course I don’t understand every new thing straight away, but that horrible sense of “I have no clue what’s going on here” isn’t something that I’d felt for a while.
I haven’t been feeling that way all the time either. Some things are topics that I’ve worked on already. Some things are completely new, but the explanations were logical to me, and I could understand the concepts.
However, other things meant that I needed to do a bit more work before I could understand them.
If it were just something I was doing for fun, there is always the option of giving up – but you can’t do that if it’s something for a course or qualification.
So here are some things that I have learned, and some tips that may help you if you are trying to learn something and you don’t understand it the first time around. I also made a podcast episode about this, so if you would rather listen than read, you can find episode 148 here.

1. Sometimes reading it again will help

Sometimes it really is that simple. The information doesn’t all find its way into your brain the first time, and you need to read it through a couple of times so that you can really focus on the words and understand what they mean. Often taking notes helps too, because if you write something in your own words, it’s easier for you to remember it. The same applies when you explain the thing to someone else – it reinforces what you have already learned.
But sometimes, reading the same piece of information again and again doesn’t help. The words are just words – lots of words – and they don’t convey the meaning to you.
Maybe it’s a bad explanation. Maybe the information is being explained in a way that doesn’t work for you. Either way, rereading it won’t help. You need to find another strategy.

2. Ask questions

I will always do my best to explain things to students, but it helps if I know when they haven’t understood something.
Sometimes as teachers we know when people aren’t following what we’re saying, but we’re only human and not mind-readers.
How you ask will depend on what you’re learning, how big the group is, or how confident you feel. But if you haven’t understood something, it’s best to ask for clarification, or to go through it again, before the next lesson comes around and you’re building on the information that you haven’t understood. If that piece of information is important for the whole module or activity, you’ll struggle with whatever comes next.
It’s much better to say that you don’t understand something than to struggle on in silence. Maybe there are other people who haven’t understood it either!

3. Figure out the best time for you to learn

I mean the best time for you to study on your own. Are you a night owl or an early morning lark?
Asking me to use my brain before about the third cup of coffee rarely ends well! I can manage simple admin tasks, but anything that is really hard is better left till later in the day when I’m more awake and focussed. You may have the opposite problem. You might be wide awake first thing, then struggle to focus as the day goes on and you become more and more tired.
Get to know what works for you, and try and work to your strengths, especially when you have to tackle something that you know will be harder for you.

4. Take good notes

I’m not going to tell you how to take good notes – it’s different for everyone. But whatever you do, it needs to be meaningful for you. Don’t expect your brain to be like a big sponge and absorb everything.
If you note down the key facts, it will help you when you come back to revise the material later.
Also, if you’re having trouble understanding something, it will make it easier for you to pinpoint exactly where the problem is or what you haven’t understood. Then it will be easier for someone else to help you – either by filling in the gap, or explaining if you have misunderstood something.

5. Ask someone who knows the answer

This is what I ended up doing a couple of times during my course. I’m lucky because my partner understands the material that I am studying, and sometimes he explains things better than the book. His explanations are more logical – to me anyway – and he approaches things in a different way.
It’s the same material. It’s the same knowledge that I need to complete the self-assessment questions afterwards. It’s just that his way of explaining the concept worked better for me.
I didn’t do this all the time, but there were at least two points where I was stuck, asked him to help, and then understood what I needed to do so that I could complete the task on my own.
Rereading the material wouldn’t have helped.
I remember doing this at school. Sometimes one of my friends would ask me to explain the homework.. I didn’t do it for her, but I explained it in a different way – maybe a less complicated way – so that she understood the task, or why we had to do things in a certain way (the joys of German grammar rules!)
I do it in my job now – especially when companies send their staff on expensive courses where the teachers won’t or can’t speak German. Sometimes people just need a bit of help to understand the exercise before they can actually do it.
So it doesn’t have to be your teacher. Do you know someone who could explain the thing that you don’t understand in a different way?

6. Don’t learn like a parrot

I was guilty of this at school, especially in maths. I didn’t always understand what we were doing, but I have a pretty good short-term memory and could memorise the steps we needed to take to solve a problem or get to the answer.
That was fine – as long as the questions in the exam were exactly like the ones in the textbook. But if anything changed, I wasn’t able to adapt the process in my head to the new situation, because I didn’t really understand it in the first place. I’d just memorised a sequence of steps. This isn’t really learning, and it won’t help if you are expected to be able to apply your knowledge in other situations.

7. It’s not you

One of the most important things is for me to say “don’t give up” and “don’t just assume that you have a problem”.
Sometimes the explanation in the book, or the way that a teacher explains something, is really confusing. If we take the example of my course, most of the material is really good, but there was someone else who had struggled with the explanation that caused me problems. She asked someone else too. Maybe the explanation could have been better. Or maybe we just think in a similar way, and not in the same way as the person who wrote the materials. People learn differently.
Also, rather than focussing on a solution such as “how am I going to fix this problem”, it’s easy to let the emotions take over. You can end up thinking “I’m just no good at…” or “I’ll never understand this” or “I’m the only one who is struggling with…”
Not understanding something can affect our confidence. It makes us feel insecure because we don’t understand what’s going on, or which steps we need to take. That is normal, but it’s good if you can try and come up with a plan before those thoughts get the chance to take root and make you miserable.
How about you? Do you have any strategies for what you do when you don’t understand something? Let us know in the comments.

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Kirsty working with students



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