How to understand a topic?

If you can’t explain it simply, then you don’t understand it well enough - Albert Einstein

Understanding is permanent, but memorization is temporary.

Every topic is associated with a concept. Get an idea about the parent concept of the particular topic you are reading.
Concepts are defined as abstract, broad, general, timeless, and natural ideas. Conflict, Love, Family, Gravity, Motion, Energy are all concepts.

For example, World war is a topic, here the concept of war is conflict. Objects are pulled towards the earth, here the concept of the earth pulling objects is gravity.

Ask Questions

We need to have the curiosity to learn something thoroughly. Curiosity arises from the desire to learn or from needs. Asking questions and finding the answers to questions help one to learn a subject.

When you study a topic, first ask yourself the following questions:

What will I learn from this?
What’s the purpose of this?
Why do I need to learn this?

Getting answers to the above questions will help you seek the details when you study the topic.


Read the topic from one or more sources. Sources can be a book, teacher note, friends note, tutor note, or internet resources.
Reading it from more than one resource will help you learn different perspectives on the same topic.

Teach other

Once you have read the topic from various sources and Know the details and the purpose of the topic, you can try teaching it to others. You
Can teach to your family members or friends and get their feedback. If you can dispense the material smoothly and in detail and are able
To answer their questions, then you can assume that you have understood the subject.

What if

Counterfactuals are very useful to investigate any topic thoroughly. In a simple term, questions formulated using what-if construct are termed counterfactuals. What is not, but could or would have been.

What if India had never been colonized?
What if there were no industrial revolution?

Construct various What-if questions based on the topic and analyze those thoroughly.

Solve problems

Solve problems related to the topic. Solving problems is the best way to validate your understanding depth. Start with simple problems and gradually move towards complex problems.
If you are stuck, discuss with your teacher and friends, or with the online community. Sometimes you can even look at other people’s solutions to understand their approach, reread relevant parts of the topic and analyze why you were not able to come up with that solution. What was lacking in your understanding? Try coming up with similar questions on your own and solve those.

Go deeper

If you have fully understood the topic and want to learn more, read the same topic from higher studies books. This will give you more ideas and the applications of that topic.

Refine and Simplify

Formulate the topic in your own words or definitions. Simplify it in such a way that anyone can understand it. Explain it via practical use cases.

Expect gradual change

Sometimes it takes time to understand some topic. Don’t get disheartened if you can not thoroughly understand it. Repeating the above steps after a certain interval with a fresh mind will help you eventually to understand.

Diffuse mode

When you are having difficulty learning something with focused mode (continuously focusing on that subject), you can let it Diffuse.
Diffuse mode of learning refers to a relaxed, unfocused learning state that allows the mind to wander and make new connections. It contrasts with focused mode, where the mind is actively concentrating on a specific task or concept.
Some key characteristics of diffuse mode learning:

  • Daydreaming - Letting the mind wander freely without conscious focus. This allows different parts of the brain to make new associations.
  • Interrupting conscious focus - Taking breaks from focused learning to refresh the mind. Short walks, naps, or distractions can activate diffuse mode.
  • Unrelated activities - Doing something relaxing and unrelated to the material like exercising, showering, or listening to music. This gives the brain space for insights.
  • Unconscious processing - Letting the subconscious continue to connect ideas and solidify learning after effortful study. Sleep and rest are important here.
  • Aha moments - Having sudden insights, ideas, and solutions seem to pop into awareness when in a relaxed state. Diffuse mode connections manifest as flashes of insight.
  • Making associations - Linking concepts and forming patterns between disparate ideas. Diffuse mode is highly connective.
  • Seeing the big picture - Stepping back mentally to see the larger context and meaning instead of focusing on details.

Diffuse mode complements focused learning. Conscious study followed by diffuse reflection allows for deeper learning and understanding. The strategic balance of both modes leads to optimal learning.

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