Knowledge vs. Understanding

In the education field we are always checking for understanding, but what is it? What sets it apart from knowledge? How can we determine if a student understands a concept? First we need to look at what is the differences between knowledge and understanding.

When contemplating knowledge versus understanding it important to consider what each word means. Many in our society use the two words interchangeably. These two words while closely relate have their own distinct characteristics that set them apart from each other.

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Knowledge is the collection of information a person has. It is information that can be recalled simply as it is. It includes such things as facts, formulas, concepts that are distinctly right or wrong and being able to give a specific answer to a prompt. Much of this can be described as rote learning. Rote learning involves memorizing information through repeated practice. While this is fine for learning key terms and formulas, it doesn’t mean that information is able to be applied in a given situation.

Understanding is built off of the knowledge a person has. Understanding involves being able to make meaning from something. Having the ability to make meaning from something involves being able to make connections with other ideas, concepts, theories, and recognizing their applications with those. Through this the simple concept now can be applied in a manner that makes it usable, not just information to be drawn upon when asked. Another key component of having understanding is being able to transfer information. Transferring information involves being able to take information from one circumstance and being able to another. This doesn’t simply involve plugging the same information into a new situation, it includes taking and manipulating and molding it creatively to fit into differ setting or to help solve different types of challenges. Another important feature of transferability is the idea of being able to discerning with concept or skill is required for a situation or problem.

To check for may involve redesigning the way we are assessing students. Most assessments involve recalling information provided in a lesson and maybe a few short answers where students are explaining the events or step in a process. To check for true understanding means designing assessments that look for transferring of information. Only by providing opportunities for students to put their knowledge to work by using newly acquired skills to solve a different problem or by creating using information in a different application, do we beginning to see the extent of their understanding.

With understanding there is always the opportunity for misunderstanding. Misunderstanding isn’t merely not knowing something. The most knowledgable students can misunderstand things. So what is it when a student misunderstands then? Wiggins and and McTghe explain that misunderstanding “is the mapping of a working idea in a plausible but incorrect way in a new situation. ” (2005, p 51) Ironically, in order to have misunderstandings the individual must have knowledge and the ability to transfer knowledge. This misunderstanding is helpful for teachers because it shows the attempt, albeit unsuccessful attempt, at transferring. It also provides an opportunity for the teacher to step back and look at what they are missing or overlooking that the novice learner isn’t able to see. Reflecting on students misconceptions and being mindful of them when designing instruction helps us to create more effective lessons for our students.

It’s important to keep in mind that all of these concepts are critical in learning. Students need to have a strong base knowledge in which to grow off of and through this they will make connections to other concepts. through those connections they will be able to transfer more information from one area of their lives to another developing a greater understanding of multiple ideas. Along the way they will have obstacles and misunderstandings will happen. This is human. It doesn’t mean anything expect that they may need a bit more guidance to strengthen their skills and connections. That’s ok.


Mayer, R. E. (2002). Rote Versus Meaningful Learning. Theory Into Practice41(4), 226–232.

Wiggins, G. P., & McTighe, J. (2005). Understanding by design. [electronic resource] (Expanded 2nd ed.). Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.

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