How to Understand Concepts.
The moment we realize that memorizing every detail is impractically hard and that understanding is pretty much where the gold is at — we’re instantly faced with one question:
How the heck do I do that?
It’s simply by three steps:
- Deconstructing the concept’s major ideas
- Analyzing each idea; and
- Reconstructing it to create coherence
Let me give you an example:
Say, for example, you’re learning how a muscle contracts.
You know that it starts from an electrical signal from the brain, but you want to understand how it really works at the cellular level.
So you read your textbook and then you find the most accepted theory of muscle contraction: Turns out it’s called “Sliding Filament Theory.”
From your material, it says:
“The most widely accepted theory explaining how muscle fibers contract is called the sliding filament theory. According to this theory, myosin filaments use energy from ATP to “walk” along the actin filaments with their cross bridges. This pulls the actin filaments closer together. The movement of the actin filaments also pulls the Z lines closer together, thus shortening the sarcomere.”
To deconstruct that, we simply find the sub-ideas that consist the sliding filament theory:
- First of all, why the heck is this even called sliding filament theory?
- What’s myosin?
- “Energy from ATP”, so what’s ATP? Attack on Titan Person? (…yeah, I tried)
- Actin filaments seem to relate to “bridges” and “movement”. I wonder what that means.
- Z lines — what are Z lines?
- Also, the heck is a sarcomere?
See how I’m asking “why” first and foremost?
I believe this forms the “skeleton” of the entire topic where you can put the mass onto. (Pun 100% intended)
It’s kinda like finding the central idea for your “mental mind maps.” You know what I mean?
Just to be clear, though, you don’t have to use mind maps or ANY note taking tool or technique. The mental process is much more important. But perhaps I’ll talk about this in the future.
Anyway, I’m coming at this from an Medical perspective so keep that in mind.
Also, I don’t really know anything about muscle contraction aside from ‘they make you look sexy when it gets stronger at some point’.
Okay, next is the harder part:
From what you already know, how do you answer these questions?
First, you try to see if the material actually gives the explanations for each sub idea.
- What’s myosin and actin in the first place and how do they relate to the sliding filament theory?
- What’s ATP and how does it work? Why is it even important in this theory?
If your material doesn’t explain how they’re connected, then there’s only one way out:
Use your prior knowledge — the lecture assumes that you already have some background of some previous subject.
And if you’re familiar with the Zettelkasten Method — NO, you don’t NEED to “link your notes” to connect ideas in your head, dammit.
Prior knowledge is the simplest tool you should use to make sense of the deconstructed parts of the concept.
That’s how you build knowledge.
Otherwise, if you don’t have much prior knowledge of “myosin”, “actin”, “ATP”, you can instead create a “Kinda Like” analogy for it — as long as the material you’re using is coherent.
- Oh, Myosin is kinda like me — it’s trying to pull everything together
- Oh, ATP is kinda like the Gatorade molecule — it gives energy to your cells
- Oh, Z lines are kinda like…
You get the point.
And when I say coherent, that does NOT include lecture slides or perfect people’s perfect notes with perfect handwriting.
I know a lot of students like to use lecture slides or others’ notes even for foundational subjects, but that’s a bad tactic if you’re aiming for understanding.
Think about it this way:
The purpose of textbooks is to raise your level of understanding.
The purpose of lecture slides is to guide your professor about the main ideas to teach.
How, then, would you use each in the smartest way possible? (rhetorical question)
I hope we’re on the same page now.
Lastly, you make everything coherent.
Connect the sub concepts from the central idea, or explain how and why the whole thing works.
If you’re having trouble because there’s too much to make coherent, then extend your working memory by using your notes.
The purpose of notes is to extend your working memory, NOT to make your ideas die as they land on paper.
So, scribble everything, create analogies, silly drawings, diagrams, or whatever.
By doing so, it helps you interact with information and make it coherent.
Why would you do that? Well, just imagine doing that all in your head.
It’s like solving a 12-step math problem mentally.
Can’t do it, right? THAT’s when and how you use notes — by extending the working memory.
After that, you’re probably done.
All that’s left is to test that understanding — you can try answering a bunch of questions from your textbook or somewhere else just to test it.
We’re imperfect humans with imperfect brains with cognitive biases, that’s why.
P.S. Just found this interesting article that supports my idea that “you don’t have to teach others in order to learn — it’s good, but not necessary.”
Some seem to swear by it because it makes you look like you’re working harder, (and you are working harder) but I don’t really buy into the idea that more effort = more results. More on this in the future.