5.4: Comprehension and Academic Performance
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The previous paragraphs have already discussed the potential for writing to help you think, so it also should come as no surprise that it’s a wonderful tool to help you learn. At some point in your experience as a student so far, you may have noticed that you understand a concept better once you’ve used it or worked with it somehow. By the middle of the 20th century, the idea that experience is a critical part of learning was gaining quite a bit of attention among experts who study theories of learning. It seems obvious, but sometimes it takes educators a while to catch on. They were beginning to realize what students of life have long known. We learn more about how to build a birdhouse by actually building one than we do by just reading a book about how to build one. Sure, the book is helpful, but we need to work with the materials and the tools to help us understand the process.
One of the reasons that experiencing or working with a concept helps you understand and remember it is that experience requires action. Have you ever read a chapter or two in a textbook only to ask yourself a few hours later (or even a few minutes later), “What did I just read?” The consumption of media and information can be a passive experience. We read. We watch. We listen. It takes effort to keep our brains engaged in a passive experience. Moreover, educational materials usually lack the level of excitement of our favorite action movie franchise or the adorable allure of cute animal videos that abound on YouTube. It’s easy for our entertainment-hungry brains to check out and stop absorbing the meaning of what we’re reading. So if we can experience a subject in multiple ways, with increasing levels of engagement, we are more likely to remember what we’re trying to learn. More importantly, beyond simply remembering it, we are more likely to understand its relevance to our own lives.
Writing about what you’re learning can expand your understanding of a topic by helping you make connections between that topic and other things that you already understand or to other things that you’re learning about. You can use writing to help you organize complex topics, to pick out main ideas, and to help you remember important concepts. If you can say it in your own words, you can move beyond merely knowing something to comprehending it. Part of this process of understanding involves extending our usual thoughts and reactions to a topic to gain new thoughts and new perspectives. Part of the process of academic writing (or even personal writing, for that matter) involves wrestling with new or contradictory ideas. And even if right now you’re mostly writing for your teachers, as your academic and professional experience broadens, through writing, you can participate more fully in your academic or professional community.