# Understanding requires elaboration
We often mistake familiarity for understanding. When you listen to a talk or read a book about a topic that you're familiar with, it's a mistake to think that you understand that topic. Re-reading is especially dangerous as not only you'll believe that you understand what you are re-reading, but you'll also tend to like them more due to the Mere-exposure effect (Ahrens 86).
If what you want to achieve is understanding, you will have to elaborate what you have learnt in your own words. You'll also have to relate about new concepts to your own experience and prior knowledge, and question what you have read or listened. Elaboration is also a good test for understanding. Try to explain what you have just read, you'd quickly notice that there's a gap in your understanding if you can't explain them. (Ahrens 120).
Ahrens, How to Take Smart Notes (p. 86).
"The principle is that you must not fool yourself, and you are the easiest person to fool," Feynman stressed in a speech to young scientists (Feynman 1985, 342). Reading, especially rereading, can easily fool us into believing we understand a text. Rereading is especially dangerous because of the mere-exposure effect. The moment we become familiar with something, we start believing we also understand it. On top of that, we also tend to like it more (Bornstein 1989). [...] While it is obvious that familiarity is not understanding, we have no chance of knowing whether we understand something or just believe we understand something until we test ourselves in some form. If we don't try to verify our understanding during our studies, we'll enjoy the feeling of getting smarter and more knowledgeable while in reality staying as dumb as we were. The warm feeling disappears quickly when we try to explain what we read in our own words in writing. Suddenly, we see the problem.
Ahrens, How to Take Smart Notes (p. 120).
We learn something not only when we connect it to prior knowledge and try to understand its broader implications (elaboration), but also when we try to retrieve it at different times (spacing) in different contexts (variation), ideally with the help of chance (contextual interference) and with a deliberate effort (retrieval).
- Ahrens, How to Take Smart Notes
- Understanding requires elaboration, and writing is an act of elaboration
- Write about what you read
- Understanding requires elaboration, therefore if you want to understand what you read, you'll have to elaborate. Writing is one good way to elaborate what you read. Writing about what you read may sound like a lot of work, but if you don't deliberately elaborate, the time that you have dedicated for reading is also going to be wasted. You have to think about writing about what you read as a process to close the loop of your learning. If that's not enough, double the benefit of your writing by organising them well so that your note-writing is not going to be wasted (for example by adopting a method like Zettelkasten).
- Elaborate in writing to test your understanding
- Understanding requires elaboration, so it’s important for us to understand how we can elaborate better. Naturally, we could elaborate our findings by talking about them. Unfortunately in an oral presentation, we could get away with unfounded claims. A “you know what I mean”, or a confident gestures may stop your peer from assessing what you have elaborated.
- Zettels should be optimised for retrieval strength
- Understanding requires elaboration, and elaboration is an act of connecting ideas to as many contexts as possible. Connecting new ideas will be difficult if you can't retrieve your previous notes easily. Remembering can be improved by deliberately creating cues, therefore zettels must be optimised for their retrieval by creating more cues. These are the approach that you should take to make them more retrievable:
- The number of zettels written per day is a better lead measure for learning
- The amount of accessible mediums where we can learn today is unprecedented, there are more books, audiobooks, videos, podcasts, or articles than ever before. You may try to learn more by consuming all these contents, but this is a mistake because Understanding requires elaboration. Using the number of books you have read, or the number of audiobooks you have listened to, as the lead measure of your learning therefore is futile.