Learning always takes place from the known to the unknown. A child can only understand things that it can directly relate to. For example, seeing a ball and learning it is a ball comes first. Then showing that the ball can “bounce” and showing what that means. The child is able to remember this and it understands it well. The opposite of that is trying to teach UKG children the capitals of countries when the child does not even know what a country means (some schools do this to impress parents!).

This simple concept – moving from what is known to the unknown is applicable at every level from school children to people doing their PhDs. All of us have our own individual knowledge trees – frameworks we have built over many years from our own experiences. These knowledge trees are essentially things we know and are deeply ingrained in us. For example, all college students know what a computer is and what software is. Now when they learn about a specific new application like Microsoft excel or Autocad, it is easy for them to build on their pre-existing knowledge. New knowledge to be retained in a person’s mind requires a place where it can go and hook onto in the existing knowledge tree of the individual. If that hook to the known is not there, the new piece of information becomes a random floating piece and people find it difficult to find it later.

Another example – when you talk about a new finance concept to a BCom student, many will struggle to understand and explain it the first time around. Show the same student a long complex movie and he will remember the entire story after just one viewing. Why? The reason why one is able to remember full movies easily is because every new piece of information is related to the previous one in a coherent fashion.

So what? Why is this significant? It is significant because once you understand this, every time you learn something new, you can consciously check to see how you can relate it to something you already know. Sometimes you may need to learn quite a few linking pieces of information before you can assimilate the new information. For example, you may have not understood a particular concept in high school about physics clearly and you may find yourself struggling to understand a related topic in your mechanical engineering course. In this instance, you will have to go back and build those links starting from what you knew in school. It is worth the effort to do this as then, what you learn will really be long lasting and you will be in a position to apply it. This is what people mean when they say “understand and learn”. The poor alternative to this is “mugging” – blindly memorizing things without a clue about why and what. Concepts are not understood and application skills do not develop leading to poor performance and eventually a less than optimum career.