By Katie Azevedo, M.Ed.
Knowing how to understand things is one of the most valuable skills you can have as a student. (And also as a professional and human, really.) The ability to understand things is called Ingenuity. Resourcefulness is a super power.
As a student, you will constantly be asked to do hard things to do. Sometimes your teachers and professors will walk you through the steps, but sometimes it’s entirely up to you to figure out the steps.
As you progress through grade levels, the expectation that you will figure things out on your own increases. If you don’t learn to be resourceful in school, life can seem difficult.
Signs you need to become more resourceful
Not knowing how to figure things out on your own can impact many areas of school and work. Here are some classic signs that your “I can understand” muscle is weak:
- You regularly have the impression that other people around you know something that you don’t
- You often tell yourself that you could have succeeded if only “_____” (fill in the blank with an excuse)
- You avoid doing things because you don’t know how to do them
- You stop working on something when you’re not sure what’s next
How to Understand Things: 5 Strategies
The following 5 strategies show you best practices for figuring things out when you get stuck. The strategies are intended for students, but they also apply to working professionals.
1. Start somewhere
You have to start something to know you’re stuck. Even if you don’t know exactly where to start, start somewhere gives you feedback. For example, if you have to write a history article on a subject of your choice and you don’t know what to do or where to start, start by flipping through your notes to remember recent topics you’ve covered in class. THE SECOND WORLD WAR? Awesome. Let’s start with that. What do you want to write about WWII? You do not know ? Alright, Google “World War II essay topics.” (This is also strategy #3.) If you hadn’t started by flipping through your notes, you never would have thought of doing something about WWII.
2. Try to identify the wall
The wall is the exact point where you are stuck and cannot move forward. This is the point where you have two choices: 1) quit and quit altogether, or 2) figure out how to move on to the next step.
Students are often too quick to say “I don’t understand! and give up. But in reality, they know a lot more than they think. Take Zach, for example. Zach is working on math problems for his homework. He gets to the middle of question 4 out of 10 and throws the pencil away in frustration because he doesn’t know what to do.
Oh, Zach! He knows Something!” He knew how to do questions 1-3, then half of 4. The WALL was somewhere in the middle of question 4. If Zach can identify the exact step he got stuck on, then it is what he would look up in his textbook, Google, or ask his teacher.
3. Google it
When you don’t know how to do something, google it! You can find out how to do almost anything by Googling “How ____”. YouTube is equally useful. Go to YouTube and search for whatever you want, and that’s it.
Let me give you a concrete example. Some variants of the following scenario have occurred several times over the past few years:
Ana comes to my office, disappointed to have lost marks on her essay for not having the proper MLA header. When I asked why Ana didn’t use the correct MLA header, she replied “because I didn’t know how to do it and my teacher didn’t show it to us”.
It gets me every time. A simple Google search for “MLA Header Format” yields the answer in 2 seconds and could save Ana 5 points.
Let’s take another example:
Chris uses an iPad with the Notability app to fill out worksheets and work digitally. (Great. That’s very common.) For a particular task, Chris had to complete something in Notability and then email it to the teacher instead of submitting it through his learning portal as usual. …
Chris completed the assignment but did not email it to the teacher. He lost points… Said he didn’t know how to get something from Notability into his email…
A simple Google search for “How to email something from Notability” would have given him the answer in seconds.
4. Check your resources
Your school’s resources include class notes, teacher’s notes, teacher’s slides, learning materials published by your teacher, textbooks, handouts, and more. If you don’t know how to do something and searching on Google didn’t help, check your resources.
- Doing a math problem for homework and getting stuck on step 3? Look at your notes.
- Writing an essay and forgetting what exactly is required? Check the heading.
- Studying for science and forgetting the differences between two biological terms? Watch the slides your teacher has posted to Google Classroom.
As a student, you have so much information at your disposal. Teachers don’t give you these resources for fun and laughs: it’s all there for you to utilize.
5. Try again
Knowing how to figure things out goes hand in hand with trying again. And even. And even. When we don’t know something and strive to figure it out on our own, we are likely to make mistakes and be wrong. This is normal and you should expect it. If you try something and it doesn’t work, try something else. Do another Google search. Watch another YouTube video. Pause and think about it, come back and try again.
How to figure things out: Conclusion
The ability to understand things is linked to self-confidence and resilience. The is an answer there. You are able to find it. Failing once doesn’t mean failing for all time. These are essential beliefs that you must adhere to before you can successfully understand something.
More resources on understanding things and self-advocacy: