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  • Writer's pictureThings Education

What ‘understanding’ is NOT…

Updated: Mar 16, 2023

...and some examples of this.

Hello and welcome to the 32nd edition of our fortnightly newsletter, Things in Education.

In the last edition, we wrote about what understanding means. Today we highlight what it is to not understand. There are some proxies for understanding that we use, but these are not really what understanding is. So, if we create assessments to evaluate for these proxies, our assessments may not be evaluating understanding at all.

So let’s dig into the different proxies for understanding.

Recalling facts is not ‘understanding’

When we want to assess students, we want to assess them on a variety of things – knowledge, skills, and understanding. Sometimes these terms get mixed up when we try to design an assessment. For example, say we want to evaluate whether a student has understood the functioning of an electrical circuit. If in this case we use this as an assessment item, what would be able to evaluate?

Q. Which part of the electric circuit is missing?

1. Resistor

2. Switch

3. Battery

4. Bulb

The above question helps the student recall their knowledge of the different parts of the electric circuit. Out of the potentially finite components of the circuit that the student has learned, they are expected to name one. They are also tested on whether they know the symbols for the different components of a circuit. However, it does not test the students’ understanding of the functioning of a circuit.

Q. Only light bulb A lights up, but light bulb B does not. Help Priya with a circuit diagram in which both lights A and B light up when she wants them to.

In this case, the student is expected to create a circuit in which both bulbs must light up. And the bulbs must light up only when Priya wants them to. This means that the student will need to have a good understanding of how parallel circuits work. They will need to know the function of switches and understand how current flows in a circuit to get the placement of the switches right. This truly represents a question which is meant to evaluate what the student has understood.

Following steps of a process is not ‘understanding’

From these examples, it must be clear that knowing is not understanding. In the same vein, just as knowing facts is not the same as understanding, being able to do something is not the same as understanding. The fact that a student can follow the process of long division means that they know procedural steps of long division, but does that really mean that they have understood it?

Making a small clarification here: all we are saying is that skills and knowledge is not understanding. At the same time, we agree that skills and knowledge are important building blocks to deep understanding. So those should be assessed and there are ways to do that. At the same time, let’s not confuse knowing and doing with understanding.

Completing a topic is not ‘understanding’

What are the other things that are wrongly used as proxies for student understanding?

…how do you know that students have understood the topic?

Teacher A: We covered the topic, right? And that is a good indication that most of the students have understood.”

This is a quote from one of our other editions which spoke about what is the role of formative assessments in teaching. So curriculum coverage is sometimes erroneously equated with understanding. Teachers sometimes believe that “if I have covered the topic in class, students have understood it.” Any good assessment to evaluate student understanding should break this misapprehension.

Engagement is not ‘understanding’

Teacher: “Today’s class was fruitful for students. We did this activity in which the students went to the garden and looked at the different organisms in one square foot of soil. The students were so excited to find such a high number of insects and other organisms in so little soil. Their excitement was really something I wish I had recorded.”

Response: “Oh, that sounds great! Students enjoying and hence feeling motivated to engage with the lesson is important. So what was the lesson about? And what did the students do post this?”

Teacher: “The lesson was about classification of organisms. We then focussed on how the different systems of classification came about. I think the students understood the introduction to classification because they were very active in class”.

A student enjoying or interacting with the lesson is motivated, and it is very likely that a motivated student is engaged in learning the lesson. However, being motivated and engaged are only a part of ensuring that students understand. It is a great start to the process, but these are the first few steps. If we get the students motivated, attentive and engaged with the lesson, then the students have a better chance of building deep understanding compared to students who are not engaged or motivated. But just being motivated or engaged is a bad proxy for understanding.

When a student from the classification class was asked what they learned that day, they said that they learned that a small tract of soil has many more animals than they imagined. When we asked the students questions like:

Why is it necessary to classify organisms?”

What are the traits on which organism can be classified?”

These questions test understanding in the students. These questions test whether the students are able to explain that the diversity of organisms that they saw would be difficult to list, monitor and study without careful classification. Had there been a connection between the garden visit and the motivation to understand classification of organisms, a student would probably have been able to answer these questions. So just enthusiasm is not a proxy for student understanding.

Having an opinion is not ‘understanding’

Finally, being able to express or have an opinion is not a sign of understanding. Being able to express or write about the immediate causes for the Second World War does not mean that the student has understood the different perspectives of all the countries around 1939. Being able to express an opinion is similar to having the skill to do or knowing the formula for the circumference of a circle. Students know that the formula exists. Students know that the opinion exists. I have only understood the formula if I understand its derivation. And in the same way, I have only understood the causes of the Second World War if I am able to understand the perspectives of the major countries involved.

So a question asking the students to list the causes of the Second World War would not check for understanding, but only check for whether the students have the knowledge of the causes. Asking them to empathise and write about the people from Germany, Italy, Poland, Hungary, etc. will check if they have been able to empathise will people living in those times. And this empathise comes only from deep understanding.


Often, we conflate understanding with a bunch of other things like a teacher covering the curriculum or a student doing, knowing, enjoying, being motivated, being engaged, or being able to express opinions. When we know that these are not good proxies for understanding, the assessments we create for checking student understanding become more accurate.

This has been a funny sort of article where we have written about what understanding is not. So what is understanding? We have, in fact, written about it in the previous edition of our newsletter. In the coming editions we will write about student misunderstandings and misconceptions – what misconceptions are and how to fish for them using assessments.


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Edition: 2.6

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