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Do the Students Understand What They Are Learning?

Tomorrow's Teaching and Learning

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Indeed, learning is best seen as an 'umbrella concept' that can cover anything from absorbing a fresh piece of information or acquiring a new skill, through grasping patterns and relationships or developing new concepts or strategies, to changing the whole way we see ourselves, others and the world.


The posting below offers advice on how to promote greater student understanding of what is being taught. It is from Chapter 4, Do the students understand what they are learning? in Trouble-shooting Your Teaching: A step-by-step guide to analysing and improving your practice by Geoffrey Squires. Kogan Page, 120 Pentonville Road London N1 9JN, UK ( 22883 Quicksilver Drive, Sterling VA 20166-2012, USA. ? Copyright Geoffrey Squires, 2003. The right of Geoffrey Quires to be identified as the author of this work has been asserted by him in accordance with the Copyright, Designs and Patent Act 1988. ISBN 0 7494 3775 8. Reprinted with permission.


Rick Reis

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Tomorrow's Teaching and Learning


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The fact that the words 'learn' and 'understand' are sometimes treated as interchangeable indicates just how central the latter is to teaching. True, there is an element of rote learning of facts, words, names or formulae in most fields, and skill learning consists in the building up and mastery of techniques and routines. It may also be difficult to articulate just what kind of learning is going on in some of the creative or performing arts, which seem to involve more tacit forms of knowledge. But most subjects and topics require the learners to follow, grasp or make sense of content in a way that then allows them to work with, re-construct or apply it in some fashion. And this understanding enables them to internalize it, to make it their own, to embed it in their cognitive worlds. Interaction is the key to this process.

* Do students in the class frequently say 'I don't follow that' or 'Could you go over that again?' or something similar?

* Do you get the feeling (perhaps from their silence or faces) that they haven't got the hang of it?

* Do they ask questions or give responses that imply that they have got the wrong end of the stick?

* When you set problems or exercises are they simply beyond some students?

* Does students' written work tend to describe or reproduce what you have said rather than use or apply it in some way?

* Do they see exams primarily as a test of memory? Does their approach to learning change as they get nearer the exams?

* How important is 'understanding' as an aim in your teaching? How important is it to the students? Do your expectations coincide?

Not all forms of learning are the same. Indeed, learning is best seen as an 'umbrella concept' that can cover anything from absorbing a fresh piece of information or acquiring a new skill, through grasping patterns and relationships or developing new concepts or strategies, to changing the whole way we see ourselves, others and the world. The relative emphasis on each of these different kinds of learning will depend on the sort of course you teach. The first thing therefore is to decide what kind of learning you want to promote, and the second is to ensure that all the elements of your teaching - content, methods, materials, style and above all assessment - are consistent with one another in promoting that learning.

That said, the idea of understanding has often been seen as the defining aspect of education, and although in the past it was less important in the narrower forms of training, it has now become critical there as well. While if we learn merely how to perform certain techniques or procedures, without understanding them, we will be lost if something goes wrong or we have to transfer them to a different context or problem. Understanding thus underpins adaptability in the world of work as elsewhere.

The extent to which students understand what they are learning is therefore usually a central measure of the success of teaching, with the corollary that one of the key functions of teachers is to 'explain things' and help students when they 'get stuck'. Explaining is not just a one-way process, and when someone says 'I explained the stock market crash to the class this morning' the response should be: 'How do you know?' Explaining involves relating the cognitive world of the subject (or teacher) to that of the learner and checking that this has actually been accomplished. Much of the time we may rely on students figuring things out for themselves but even the best students sometimes run into a problem that needs unblocking.

One problem is that teachers sometimes simply present a topic (see the previous section on Input) and then move straight on to a task without pausing to make sure that the students have really understood it. This sometimes reflects pressure of time and the need to cover a lot of ground; large classes also make checking understanding difficult. And when a student does not ask a question, one has to balance the desire to respond with the need to keep the group's attention and momentum. A different and more serious problem is that students may view learning as mainly a matter of memorizing and reproducing what they have been taught rather than making sense of it for themselves: 'surface learning' rather than 'deep learning' (see Notes). This may reflect their own preferred or habitual approach but it may also be the result of the messages they pick up from the teaching environment. Do the lecturers or teachers project such an attitude? Does the curriculum require it? Do the materials exemplify it? Does the assessment reinforce it? Students can take their cue from all these aspects of teaching, especially the last, which for them is the 'bottom line'.

Here are some solutions to consider:

* Focus on the way you ask and answer questions. In particular, note what you do when students say that they do not understand or follow something. Break it down into smaller steps or stages? Look for an example, parallel or analogy? Translate it into language they will understand? Encourage the student to articulate the nature of the problem? Ask another student to explain it? If necessary, get a colleague to sit in and listen to how you do all this.

* Build questions into handouts. These will encourage students to engage with the material actively rather than just absorbing it passively.

* Begin a session with a few key questions. Then use the rest of the time to answer or explore them. Return to them at the end.

* Look carefully at the kinds of comments you make on written work. Do they really help the students to understand? Or are they just token ticks, underlinings or question marks? The way you comment on work affects the student's approach to learning.

* Find simpler or more basic texts that weaker students can use as a backup to the standard ones in areas of difficulty.

* If your timetable allows, set aside some individual tutorial sessions to help students who seem to have particular problems. If you can invest some time in this early on in the course it may save you time later.

* Carry out a simple, written survey of the class, asking which parts of the course they find most difficult and why. Collate the results and see if there are any patterns.

* Discuss the students' expectations of and approach to learning with them. Find out what they think the course is really about, what it asks of them. Do they see it in terms of deep or surface learning? How do they approach it? What strategies do they use to cope with it? It is probably best to do this spontaneously on the back of other topics rather than try to address it directly.

* If you have some control over the scheme of work, do not try to cover so much in a single session. Allow more time for question and answer and checking understanding. However, if the course is set, you will have to condense some other (hopefully easier) topic.

* Make sure the assessment questions are consistent with the kind of learning you want to encourage. Whatever you say about the course, the students will take their cue from these. Pay particular attention to the verbs used in questions, such as name, list, describe, compare, apply, use, explain, consider, examine, evaluate... Do they call for memorization and reproduction or for more complex forms of analysis, understanding, application or evaluation? ( See Notes.)