How would you respond if asked, "What is the periodic table of elements?"

For most of us, the answer would probably be pretty straightforward. We have basic knowledge of it because we studied it in high school. We might be able to recite the names of a few elements and their symbols or, at most, maybe remember a few atomic numbers.

But someone with a deep understanding of the periodic table would answer the same question differently. They would probably provide a comprehensive overview of the table and its structure and explain the different elements and their properties. They might also point out notable trends in the table, such as how certain elements form bonds with one another or why some metals are more reactive than others.

Deep understanding goes beyond simply memorizing facts. It's an in-depth exploration of a subject that requires higher-order thinking and critical analysis. This kind of deep learning is necessary for mastering academic topics and can also help us appreciate the world around us in new ways.

Whether you're studying the periodic table or table etiquette for a dinner party, developing a thorough understanding is crucial to achieving true mastery. Let's take a closer look at the concept of deep understanding, why it's something we should strive for, and how we can apply practical tips to achieve it.

What is deep understanding?

Deep understanding: light bulb illustration with crumpled, colored pieces of paper in it

You may have heard the buzzword "deep understanding" before, but what does it actually mean?

According to Collins Dictionary, deep understanding means a complete and thorough knowledge or grasp of a subject. Deeply understanding an issue means grasping the concept's nuances and interrelationships between different elements. At this level of cognition, you've developed competencies beyond simple facts or surface-level comprehension and can explain the subject and its importance in detail.

Developing a deep understanding is a process, not a destination, according to Harvard School of Education researcher Tina Grotzer. She and her colleagues on "Project Zero" have extensively researched deep understanding and its implications for student understanding. As Grotzer says, the nature of deepening understanding is evolutionary. Deep knowledge "leads to new questions and a willingness to work at the edge of one's competence to pursue new knowledge in a form of progressive problem-solving."

Knowledge vs. understanding vs. expertise

It's important to clarify that knowledge isn't the same as understanding. We can gain knowledge of something without genuinely comprehending it. For example, you might be able to rattle off a few impressive facts about the periodic table. But rote memorization doesn't create deep knowledge—just surface-level information.

You should also note that deep understanding and expertise are different as well. Developing a thorough understanding is one of the steps toward becoming an expert in a topic, but it isn't the only one. Expertise also requires skills, practice, and the repeated application of deep understanding in various settings and contexts.

Why is it important to develop deep understanding?

Pencil and a small notepad

Developing a deep understanding of a subject may sound like a lot of work. And it is. But it doesn't have to be intimidating. Many benefits make the deep-learning process worth the work.

  • Increased confidence: "Project Zero" research has revealed that a deeper understanding of a subject is more empowering than surface-level knowledge. Deep learning will give you the confidence to think critically and better articulate why something is important or how it can be applied in different scenarios.
  • Improved critical thinking skills: Thorough understanding of a subject requires a deep dive into its complexities and details. This helps you develop your critical thinking skills because it forces higher-order thinking skills, pushing you beyond the surface level to analyze the information.
  • Enhanced problem-solving abilities: Developing deep understanding means more than just learning facts. It's about grasping how points relate to one another and understanding their implications. This kind of deep learning can help you better spot patterns, predict outcomes, and improve your problem-solving skills.
  • Increased creativity: When you develop a deep understanding, you make new connections between concepts and see things in new ways. The synthesis of learning and creative thinking can help you create unique ideas and valuable insights.
  • Higher performance: People with deep understanding typically perform better in tests, exams, and their day-to-day work, as they can think critically about a topic and articulate their thoughts more effectively. Deep understanding is also the basis for mastering a subject and becoming an expert.

Deep understanding also provides a sense of accomplishment and satisfaction—it's rewarding to know that you have taken the time to understand something in detail. Moreover, fully understanding something helps us appreciate how much we don't understand, opening the door to lifelong learning.

How do you measure your level of understanding?

Assessing your level of understanding is crucial, as it will help you track your progress and identify gaps in your knowledge. But measuring something subjective, like deep understanding, can be challenging, especially for self-learners. Without the assessments and instructor feedback of a traditional learning environment to measure your progress, you must find other ways to determine your understanding.

One way to tell if you have a deep understanding of a subject is to see if you can explain it in simple terms. Simplifying complex information is more complicated than it seems and nearly impossible if you don't understand the material. One of the steps in the Feynman Technique is "explaining to a 12-year-old" because it's an excellent way to test your knowledge and can reveal gaps in your understanding.

Another way to measure deep understanding is to see if you can identify connections between topics and explain how they relate. For example, thinking back to the periodic table, someone with deep knowledge could explain the relationships between the elements, how they're organized, and what that means in the big picture of chemistry.

Deep understanding can also be measured by how well you can apply your competency to real-world problems. If you can examine a problem from multiple angles and develop creative solutions using your knowledge—for example, if your understanding of the elements helped you determine which substances you shouldn't mix in a cleaning solution—that's a good indication that you've deepened your understanding.

5 tips to engage your learning and achieve deep understanding

Wooden stairs and a light bulb

Achieving deep understanding extends beyond memorizing the facts for an exam or knowing enough to sound smart at dinner parties. A thorough understanding of a topic requires ongoing active learning, engagement, and exploration.

Here are five ways to engage your learning to develop a deeper understanding.

1. Get curious about it

Start by cultivating curiosity. Developing a thorough understanding requires intrinsic motivation and a considerable time commitment. You'll need to dive deep into the topic and explore the nuances, and that's only possible if you're genuinely interested. Encourage your curiosity and let yourself explore by asking questions, seeking new information, and considering different perspectives.

2. Read about it—a lot

Learn more about the topic by exploring its history, research studies, and how it's applied in real-world scenarios. The more you read, the better you'll understand the subject. Seek diverse sources and materials, from textbooks to magazine articles. Keep an open mind, and don't be afraid to explore different points of view. As you read closely, save useful sources into your personal knowledge management system so you can return to them later.

3. Write it down

Note-taking is incredibly valuable for deep understanding. Research shows that taking notes—especially by hand—can improve information processing and help you remember what you've learned. Reviewing your notes later will help you make further connections between concepts and form a more meaningful understanding. As you explore your topic, be sure to record your observations. Try using various note-taking techniques, such as smart notes and visual notes, to gain the most benefit. Switching it up can help you see things in new ways, and there is evidence that doodling enhances learning and improves retention.

4. Explain it to someone

To gain a deeper understanding of your topic, try elaborating on it. Explain what you know to someone else or record yourself speaking about the topic so you can listen back and identify any gaps in your knowledge. Either way, discussing the subject will help you strengthen your understanding. According to experts in the journal "Applied Developmental Science," learners can deepen their conceptual understanding by elaborating on information in several ways, such as self-explanation, presenting the information to others, or teaching peers.

5. Put it into action

According to the same article in the "Applied Developmental Science" journal, we can learn more deeply if we put our learning into practice with a task. This could be problem-solving, experimenting, or creating something. Returning to the example of the elements, this might mean developing a new cleaning solution using certain elements or running an experiment on chemical reactions. Whatever the activity, doing the thing is the best way to gain a deep understanding.

Developing a deep understanding is the first step to mastering your subject matter

With these tips, you can move past surface-level knowledge and dig deep into your next learning project. Get curious, read deeply, take notes, explain it to others, and put your knowledge into action. With deep understanding comes confidence, empowerment, and the satisfaction of true mastery.

I hope you have enjoyed reading this article. Feel free to share, recommend and connect 🙏

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Erin E. Rupp
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Erin E. Rupp

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