What Does It Mean To Understand Something?


Tuesday, 7.40pm

Sheffield, U.K.

Traditional education is based on facts and figures and passing tests – not on a comprehension of the material and its application to your life. – Will Smith

In my last post I looked at how we use note taking to support memory. In this post, I want to look at comprehension – do we understand what we’re recording – and work through the ideas in a few papers.

How can we tell if someone understands what is going on? How do we tell if we’re getting it? Comprehension is a measure of how much information is being transferred from one person to another, from a lecturer to a student or from a client to a consultant. Boyle (2013) looks at comprehension from the lens of an inclusive classroom and how students with learning disabilities can use strategies to increase their levels of comprehension and comes up with useful, generalizable principles.

In a student-teacher context it’s relatively straightforward to come up with an assessment of comprehension – you test the student. You can ask them what they remember straight after the lecture or you can give them a variety of tests designed to probe how much they understood. You have to watch out and control for certain things – the faster people write, for example, the better their performance on tests.

A typical lecture will contain a number of critical points and the lecturer will often emphasize these points – providing cues that suggest to the student that this material is worth noting. If you let students take notes any which way they want they typically capture around a quarter of the points that are made.

Using a strategic approach to note taking can push this up to around 40%. The main thing is to recognise that concepts are often clustered. You will probably hear four to six related things and if you capture these points and give them a label that frees you up – you can “forget” the six things, remember the label and focus on the next six things coming at you and their relationship with the existing labels on the page. Strategic note taking in Boyle (2013) formalises this approach, requiring students to take notes in a clustered form.

Such approaches result in an increase in both the quantity and quality of notes, which in turn help increase comprehension. The thing that’s important is that there is active engagement with the material – the act of noting down lecture points and then having to summarize them with a label forces the student to think about the points and consider them more deeply. These acts of engaging with the content seem crucial to really comprehending what’s going on. Study methods emphasize the importance of reviewing prior knowledge and reviewing material after lectures. The use of review periods and working with the material, paraphrasing it in your own words and wrestling with the ideas is what really helps make them your own.

You could type out every word or, easier still, get an AI embedded in your videoconferencing software to transcribe on the fly, but we know that reading and re-reading results in quite shallow learning – not the deep learning that’s needed to master the material (Morehead et al, 2019). We’ll come back to that in another post.

In the next one – more on production of notes and the impact on comprehension.


Karthik Suresh


Boyle, J.R. 2013, “Strategic Note-Taking for Inclusive Middle School Science Classrooms”, Remedial and special education, vol. 34, no. 2, pp. 78-90.

Morehead, K., Dunlosky, J., Rawson, K.A., Blasiman, R. & Hollis, R.B. 2019, “Note-taking habits of 21st Century college students: implications for student learning, memory, and achievement”, Memory (Hove), vol. 27, no. 6, pp. 807-819.

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