8 Ways to Check If You’ve Really Understood Your Studies

You might have heard of the concept of “teaching to the test”.

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It’s teaching that’s not necessarily about true understanding of the material, but instead about maximising the possible marks you could get in an exam scenario. That might mean focusing narrowly on the topics the exam covers, and ignoring related material. It might mean prioritising memorisation over deeper analysis. It might mean a relentless focus on the particular form of the exam (a particular style of essay, or answering multiple-choice questions) rather than looking at the subject more broadly.
With higher-level exams, or well-written exams more generally, teaching to the test often does still leave you with a solid understanding of the subjects you’ve studied, as you couldn’t have passed your exams without them. And you may be grateful for being taught to the test if you end up with better exam results than you might have achieved from a more holistic approach.
But you might also find yourself wondering whether your top marks actually reflect real understanding, or just the fact that you know a particular exam format inside out – and if you’re facing university admissions interviews, or other non-exam tests of your knowledge – it’s probably worth knowing the answer. Here are eight ways to tell how deep your understanding of a subject goes.

1. Teach someone else

The classic way of checking whether you’ve actually understood what you’ve been taught is to teach someone else. For instance, if you’re revising with a friend and you have different levels of knowledge on different topics, then teaching one another is a great way to see how deep your understanding goes. Often you only realise that you don’t understand something as well as you thought when you have to explain it – for instance if you’ve memorised a term, but don’t entirely grasp its definition. However, if you’ve been taught to the test, trying to teach someone who’s going to be taking the same test might not reveal gaps in your understanding, as their approach will be broadly the same as yours.

Grab a parent, a sibling, or the family pet, and get teaching!
Grab a parent, a sibling, or the family pet, and get teaching!

If you have a patient parent, sibling, or friend who isn’t taking the same exams as you, trying to teach them what you’ve learned may be a better option. They won’t have the same mindset as someone focused on your particular exam, so the questions they ask and the points that they get confused about will be more useful in figuring out the gaps in your own knowledge. It may be that you know a great deal of answers to questions about how something works or what happened, but not the answers to why – and that’s the kind of question that someone you’re teaching is likely to ask.
You don’t need to be an expert in teaching for this method to work, by the way. Just spend an hour or two trying to explain your notes, or the focus of a couple of your lessons in school, and that should do the trick. After all, if you’re explaining things to someone who won’t be taking the exam, if they actually learn something from you, it’s a bonus, not an essential.

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2. Try out a different set of past papers

Using past papers is a great way to revise, but it might seem like the ultimate in being taught to the test – you’re literally assessing how well you can do at the exam, rather than looking at your knowledge and understanding in general. Yet if you’re someone who likes the concrete approach of being able to give yourself a score out of 100 (rather than, say, trying to figure out if it’s meaningful that you can’t explain a particular technical term to your parents), then there is still an option for using past papers.

Completing past papers enables you to track your progress more reliably.
Completing past papers enables you to track your progress more reliably.

For popular subjects, there are a whole range of past papers available beyond the ones for your particular syllabus and exam board. It may be that the curriculum has changed, and only papers from a particular exam board and from the past three years are useful in predicting your ultimate mark in the exam. But they aren’t the only ones that are useful in testing your knowledge more generally. You could look at different exam boards, which might cover different material or use different question styles. You could try some much older past papers, if you can get hold of them (your school may have a dusty storeroom somewhere that you might get permission to look through). Depending on the subject, you might even be able to take past papers from a different country. The overall content should be broadly the same (there are only so many ways to teach calculus or Hamlet) but any exam-specific strategies that you’ve learned won’t be useful to you, so it’s a purer test of your knowledge.

3. Set yourself questions an examiner wouldn’t ask

Put yourself in the mind of a facetious toddler and work from there.
Put yourself in the mind of a facetious toddler and work from there.

On a similar note, try coming up with questions that an examiner wouldn’t ask. If your subject is something like Maths, this is likely to be quite tricky, but for something like History or English it’s reasonably straightforward. One way to come up with essay questions an examiner wouldn’t write is to come up with something ridiculous. That might be “Why is Of Mice and Men so short?”, “Should Hamlet be ginger?” or “Was Henry VIII really annoying to live with?” Think about the kind of thing a toddler might ask, and take it from there.
This is worth doing because it leads you to approach the topic from a different perspective. In some fields, you’re likely to have learned a few defining themes to focus on. In the case of Hamlet, that might be revenge, tragedy and madness. Every exam question will pick up on one of these identifiable themes, though it might take some digging to get to it. But this approach to a topic means that you might never have considered the topic without immediately resorting to those themes – so for instance, you might never have thought about Hamlet from the perspective of war and international politics, and might struggle to know how to answer a question about it. Coming up with questions outside the box like this can help highlight gaps in your studies.

4. Compare what you know with more advanced materials

Challenge yourself by taking things up to the next level.
Challenge yourself by taking things up to the next level.

More advanced courses can go two different ways. Sometimes, you’ll have to specialise, and focus on an ever-narrower field of study. Sometimes, you’ll be expected to increase your range and breadth of understanding. When studying literature, for instance, you’ll go from being asked about the interpretation of specific themes to being expected to figure out what the important themes are for yourself. You can expect a lot less spoon-feeding of information at more advanced levels regardless of whether you’ll progress to greater breadth or greater depth.
This is great if you’re trying to assess your own level of knowledge. More advanced textbooks should be easy enough to borrow from your school library, and you can read through the introductory chapters to see which parts you can and can’t understand on the basis of your previous studies. You shouldn’t look too far ahead (so don’t go from GCSE to university-level material, for instance) but a year or two above your current level is fine.

5. Test your knowledge in the wild

Your understanding of certain subjects is best tested not in an exam hall, but in real life. The most obvious example of this is foreign languages, where the main purpose of learning them is to be able to communicate with people in that language, alongside understanding it in other forms, such as reading literature written in it.

Most people lose interest when their subject becomes overly theoretical.
Most people lose interest when their subject becomes overly theoretical.

You might be able to handle set conversations about ordering a meal in a restaurant, booking a hotel room or discussing your hobbies, but that’s no good if you struggle the instant you have to use the language in a context that you haven’t specifically practised for – for instance, if you’re on holiday in a country where the language is spoken, your car breaks down and you have to explain to the mechanic what happened. Using the language in real life is the best way to find out where there are gaps in your vocabulary – for example, would it have occurred to you normally to learn the words for ‘tyre’ or ‘steering wheel’?
There are other examples of how this can work beyond foreign languages. You might be using your Maths skills for budgeting (though that might sound like basic arithmetic, comparing savings accounts can be complex) or seeing how what you’ve learned in Religious Studies compares to the actual religious practices of your friends and family.

6. Try counterfactuals

What if..?
What if..?

A great way to see if you’ve understood the topics you’ve learned enough to analyse them, rather than just regurgitating things you’ve memorised, is to look at counterfactuals. This is easiest to explain from the perspective of History, but could work in other subjects as well.
Essentially, instead of looking at what did happen, you can look at what might have happened but didn’t, and think about what that might have led you to conclude instead. Set yourself lots of questions along the lines of ‘what would have happened if…?’ and work out the answers. For instance, what might have happened if Henry VIII hadn’t married Catherine of Aragon, or if the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V hadn’t been her nephew? It’ll require you to think about causes and consequences from a different perspective, and that can be valuable.
But this needn’t be restricted to History. For instance, you could look at famous experiments in Physics, and consider what the conclusions might have been if the results had been just a little bit different. You could assess how our approach to particular texts in English Literature might change if we were to learn that their authors had been someone different entirely. With a little bit of thinking, you can come up with this kind of question for most subjects.

7. Analyse the subject itself

There is debate among historians about the value of looking at counterfactuals; some argue that it’s a different perspective that can enhance our understanding of what actually happened, while others suggest that it’s pointless to study things that didn’t happen. This debate is an example of historiography: the study of the methodology of historians.

Do you know your post-structuralism from you eco-criticism?
Do you know your post-structuralism from you eco-criticism?

Similarly, there’s a debate in the study of Literature that asks whether the author of a text is in any way relevant to the study of that text. Formalism, for instance, is a type of literary theory that argues that a text should be analysed without reference to its context; that focusing on the author or the history of the times in which the text was written means that proper literary analysis of the text is given second place to what is essentially biography. Other schools of literary criticism argue that texts can’t possibly be fully understood without reference to their context.
Many disciplines have this kind of meta-level discussion of how the subject should be pursued – there’s historiography, literary theory, and jurisprudence, which is the philosophical theory of law, among others. Looking at your subject from this level illuminates your understanding not only of what you’ve been taught, but also the way that you’ve been taught it.

8. Test yourself with Oxbridge interview questions

Interview questions at Oxford and Cambridge are notoriously challenging, and that’s partly because they’re specifically designed so that memorisation of information isn’t good enough; you have to be able to analyse your subject. (The other reason, of course, is because they’re intended to root out the best of the best among the candidates).

"Well, what do you want to know?"
“Well, what do you want to know?”

You might think that you know a great deal about all the poetry you’ve studied at school, for instance, but can you answer an Oxbridge interview question like ‘should poetry be difficult to understand?’ Similarly, another classic Oxbridge interview question is ‘tell me about a cactus’, which demands not only that you provide information about cacti, but also that you’re able to figure out what’s relevant and what’s not. The answer to ‘tell me about a cactus’ could be quite different depending on whether you’re being asked this in the context of Biological Sciences, Ecology or something completely different like Fine Art. There are plenty of example Oxbridge interview questions available online for you to test yourself with, and see how deep your understanding of your subject really goes.
Image credits: bookshelf; typing at laptop; pointing at globe; past paper on table; small girl; library; chalkboard; question mark; kitten looking at pile of books; cactus reading the dictionary


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