How to Study at University

Practical tips and general thoughts on how to study at a Western university

Understanding understanding

Posted on | November 4, 2011 | 2 Comments

Point: Understand relationships to help you to remember

Do you remember things easily?

You remember some things but not others, right? That’s natural. It’s often said – possibly even by you – that people remember the things that interest them most. And forget the things that don’t.

So you remember who is in your favourite sports team, the lyrics to certain songs, how to bake apple pie, and your boyfriend’s birthday (unless you’re not much interested in your boyfriend).

And you forget to clean your room.

At university there are times when you have to remember things and, let’s face it, some of those things might not be very interesting. It happens.

So how can you remember something that doesn’t interest you much?

One way, the best way, is to understand it. Deep understanding is always better than shallow memorising if you want to remember things.

Understanding is … ?

An important part of understanding something is knowing its relationships. This also applies to people. If you know your friend well you also know about their family, who their favourite musician is, what food they like, where they live. When you meet someone for the first time you only know what you see before you. As you get to know them, you begin to learn about their relationships to the rest of the world.

Understanding things like SWOT analyses or metal strength or chemical reactions or contract law or cloud formation or semantics – anything, in other words, that you study at university – means learning about their relationships to the rest of the world. If you learn about these relationships, if you understand the thing you are studying, you will remember it far more easily.

There are many kinds of relationships a person or thing can have. Some are

  • Causes (What caused it?)
  • Effects (What did or does it cause?)
  • Problems (What problems does it present?)
  • Solutions (What problems does it solve?)
  • Time (What else happened at the same time?)
  • Location (What else happened at the same place?)
  • Resemblance (What looks, sounds, tastes like it?)
  • Resonance (What mood or memories does it provoke?)
  • Associations (When you think of it, what other thoughts occur to you?)
  • Attraction (What likes or dislikes it? What does it like or dislike?)
  • People (Who has written or researched about it?)
  • Etc.

Come back! Are you running away from this long list? Well, don’t. You don’t have to find all these relationships for everything you want to understand. It’s just a list to let you know how many possible relationships there are, and how easy it is to find them. It’s actually a good thing.

Do this

In the centre of a page of notepaper, write down the name of the thing.

Then look at the list above and jot down whatever words they make you think of about the thing. Brainstorm. You don’t have to draw clear links between the words (yet anyway) but you might want to write words that have a closer relationship closer together on the paper.

I have done a basic one here on language learner autonomy. I did it in a couple of minutes and I can already see possible relationships that I didn’t see before.

Just the process of brainstorming – just one brain storming on one piece of paper – can help you remember better, especially if you are a visual person but I think it works even if you are not. I’m not and it works for me.

Not new but nice

This is not a new technique. Brainstorming is used in many fields for different purposes. One of the nicest I have heard of was described by the English poet Ted Hughes. He said that we have lots of interesting thoughts but they flit through our heads and are hard to pin down. We need to catch those ideas, and writing formal sentences is not the best way. He recommended looking steadily at an object for five minutes and then spending the next ten minutes jotting down everything you saw and everything the object suggested to you.

Then go and write a poem about it.

So I’ll leave you there to brainstorm and understand and easily remember your university subjects.

Because I suddenly feel inspired.

I’m off to write a poem about language learner autonomy!



2 Responses to “Understanding understanding”

  1. Jenny
    November 7th, 2011 @ 9:23 am

    Hello Terry,

    I have always liked your articles. They are simple, interesting and above all useful.

    This one helped me a lot with memorizing my speech and I won the second place in a speech competition held by our university.

    Thank you so much!

    Looking forward to more.


  2. Terry
    November 7th, 2011 @ 10:43 am

    Hello Jenny,

    Congratulations on getting second place in your speech! I’m glad the article helped but I’m sure it is mostly down to your hard work and practice. Keep it up.


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