What’s to Understand About Health: Part 2

by | Jun 19, 2023 | Resilience

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If you understand a concept, you should know it when you see it.

The first article in this series described two types of knowledge that can help you become better able to, as we say, “Chart your course to a healthier life.” Those are concepts and principles.

Here we’re going to talk about how to know whether or not you’ve actually understood a concept. We’ll use metabolism as an example.

Metabolism is a word that is commonly misunderstood, often thought to mean, “How rapidly your body burns calories.” That’s certainly a related idea, but it’s not the actual meaning, which is this (drawn from the Insight, What Is Metabolic Health?):

In each cell in your body, there are continuous chemical reactions that keep the cell alive and functioning. These chemical reactions generate energy, produce building blocks to replace worn-out parts or create new cells, and create other substances that your body uses to operate and regulate itself. The collection of these chemical processes is called your metabolism.

With that in mind, there are three questions you can ask yourself to assess the degree to which you understand this concept:

1) Do I recognize examples of the concept?

If you understand a concept, you should know it when you see it. In this case, you could think of things you know about the body and the way cells work, and try to identify in any of the knowledge an example of metabolism.

We can also imagine this as a multiple choice question:

Which of these are examples of metabolism?

    1. The amount of protein in a meal
    2. The conversion of energy of glucose to energy in the molecule ATP
    3. Breathing
    4. The circulation of blood in the body.
    5. The contraction of a muscle caused by a chemical change within muscle cells

If you can select the correct two examples* from this list, that’s an indication of understanding. If not, there is something about metabolism that you don’t understand.

2) Can I think up an example of the concept?

In this case, you could try to imagine something that could happen in the body that is an example of metabolism.

By the way, there’s a different way to ask questions 1 and 2, which is whether or not you recognize or can think up non-examples of the concept. Knowing what metabolism isn’t is as important as knowing what it is; it’s just the flip side of the coin.

3) Can I explain the concept in my own words?

One of the best teachers I have ever worked with used this technique to evaluate student understanding of the concepts she taught in her 5th grade math class: every student kept a math journal, and in their journals they were expected to write down in their own words the meanings of the key math words they were learning. This is the acid test—if you can explain the concept clearly and correctly in your own words, it’s likely that you understand it well, if you cannot, you don’t.

These three questions are useful not only to assess your own understanding, but also to improve it. You will find that engaging in each of them as exercises as you study will result in improved understanding as well as more certainty of your understanding.

Finally, you may have noticed that there’s a question which I did not include in this list, very intentionally—it’s whether or not you can repeat a definition, or even fill in a blank in the definition. That’s because it’s quite possible to do that whether or not you have any understanding of the concept at all. That’s not to say that there’s no value in learning a definition by heart—I personally believe that there is, because doing so will cause you to notice every word in the definition and the relationships of the words to each other. But in and of itself it’s an exercise that neither achieves nor assesses actual understanding.

You may have believed that understanding is something that happens to you as you read or study, something that is the responsibility of the writer. Certainly it’s true that the presentation of an idea can make it easier or harder to understand, but, as with all matters of health, the final responsibility lies with you—you create your own understanding. Results don’t come for free, you have to work at it actively. The above are some ways to do that which, you will find, will pay substantial rewards as you continue to learn.

* b) and e)

Dave Hendry

Dave Hendry


Dave Hendry is co-founder of The 5 Fundamentals of Health and Fundamentals of Health Alliance. He has an extensive CV in research, education and curriculum development.

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