Understanding What You Don’t Understand

When students are having trouble, I often suggest that they come to work with me one-on-one so that we can figure out where they are going wrong and fix it. We go through an example of a basic and core problem, such as a simple supply and demand problem in economics. I ask them to explain things to me step-by-step so that I can see at what point the difficulty or mistake occurs. When we get to a point where they don’t know how to answer a question or where they have a misunderstanding, I jump in and explain. Then we do another example—or several more—so that they have a chance to do it themselves. Students usually find where their misunderstanding, or missing understanding, is.

Some students feel upset at being “put on the spot,” and some just avoid coming in to do this. I know that it is important that students don’t think that they are innately stupid and can’t learn. And I worry that highlighting their lack of understanding can undermine students’ confidence. But this method of finding out what students don’t know is generally very effective. Afterwards, they frequently enjoy a major leap in performance and understanding.

One student response, however, undermines the process and raises a red flag: “I understood that” right after saying something that showed not understanding. If you don’t realize that you don’t understand something then you can’t fix it. In my experience, such a response indicates a student who is unlikely to learn and improve either from our interaction or in other settings. Over the years, I have come to repeat things like: “Knowing what you don’t know is the key to learning”; “In economics (research methods, etc.) many problems are hard, and I often don’t understand them at first. It takes work. You need to be comfortable with not understanding things. Not understanding doesn’t mean anything is wrong, just that you need to work at it.”

But these are things that I say primarily in my office with individual students and only rarely to the class as a whole. Even when I speak to the class as a whole, I don’t really offer concrete methods for helping a student who does not recognize what they don’t understand to gain that recognition. I would like to have a more systematic way to help in this process.

Therefore, I read with interest an account of a CUNY project on self-regulated learning, described recently in the Chronicle of Higher Education here . The article describes how in a basic math course at City Tech, “when students make errors, they need to be coached to reflect on exactly where they went wrong…students are required to rework at least two of their incorrect quiz problems…[and] write a sentence or two about the correct strategy.”

What do other instructors think? How do you respond to students who don’t recognize when they don’t know or understand something?

About Dahlia Remler

SPA Faculty
This entry was posted in Analytical Skills, Students' Skills and Abilities, Students' Thinking. Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Understanding What You Don’t Understand

  1. Gregorio says:

    A break through moment for me as a student – and one I share with other students I’ve worked with – was when I realized it was OKAY to not understand something on the first go around. Having read mainly for leisure my entire life, I’d become accustomed to understanding whats on the page. No one ever told me that it was normal to not understand a complex academic article or model on the first read through. I felt dense and frustrated every time I had to re-read something, piecing it together and talking myself through it. Spare your students the heartache, tell them it is OKAY to get it on the 2nd, 3rd, or even 4th go around! And that in fact they have to read it as many times to really get it.

  2. Dr. Sanford Aranoff says:

    Instead of focusing on what I do not understand, I focus on what students think, and try to build from there stressing basic principles and logic. See “Teaching and Helping Students Think and Do Better” on amazon.

  3. Annette Gourgey says:

    I teach statistics, which most students find intimidating. I usually say something early in the semester about how mistakes are a normal and necessary part of learning as we try to figure things out. I expect them to make mistakes while they’re learning and they will not get penalized for them; the important thing is to learn how to correct their mistakes. And they will see me make mistakes on the board from time to time. Seeing me make mistakes and correct them with good humor often loosens up their anxiety about their own mistakes.

    Students’ not knowing when they don’t know is a big issue in self-directed learning. I think sometimes they only realize that when confronted by their mistakes. Another possibility is that they knew they didn’t understand, but are embarrassed and trying to save face. In that case, making it safer to make mistakes might be helpful.

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