It appears the word "understanding" is nebulous when used in an educational setting. What's the most rigorous definition you've found for "understanding" when used for learning?


Every now and then I hear people going into great depth about knowledge vs understanding. They say one might want to strive for deeper understanding and not just knowledge.

Intuitively I see the difference between rote learning (e.g. "the capital of Canada is Ottawa") and deep understanding (e.g. creating new interesting music).

That said, I think there's a large grey area in-between. Say, getting knowledge vs understanding out of reading a book or listening to music.

So what is "understanding" and what is "knowledge"? From a pure linguist perspective, does it have a clear definition?

Am I making sense? Apologize if the question is too vague. :)

1 Answer 1


I would try to convey the difference like this: If one knows the method for solving a problem, one can apply it to that and equivalent problems, and can communicate that singular method to another. If one understands a method for a problem, one can apply it to similar or perhaps even unrelated problems, further being able to teach the method using multiple approaches to someone else.

A concrete example might be speaking a foreign language - Understanding could be measured by one's ability to compose novel sentences unheard/unread that convey suitable meaning. Knowledge would be set phrases that one had learned on one level, or the vocabulary and grammar necessary for novel composition at another.

From this example it could be reasonably argued that understanding is a superset of knowledge, as understanding carried from other domains cannot be applied to a new one without at least a threshold of knowledge.

  • Thanks for taking the time to respond, Sam. Want to clarify one thing in your foreign language example. You say that knowledge could be a set of phrases and grammar you've learned for novel composition of another. Now isn't that the same as your definition for "understanding", i.e., "compose novel sentences conveying suitable meaning"? You couldn't possibly invent words you've never learned or use grammar you've never encountered?
    – Michael
    Jul 3, 2015 at 15:53
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    Another example I suggest from maths: knowing the formula for solving quadratic equations (minus b plus or minus the square root of...) allows someone to do just that and nothing more; understanding how it was derived might empower someone to create their own to solve other types of equations.
    – Avon
    Jul 3, 2015 at 16:23
  • @Michael Understanding is the ability / capacity to use the words and grammar you know to create new phrases. i.e. application of existing knowledge towards novel / greater purpose. I was trying to convey that for understanding to be realised, one must first know some grammatical structures and have a basic vocabulary, which is why I talk about a threshold level of knowledge. In my example, you can't understand a foreign language without knowing any of its parts, but you don't need to know all of its parts to understand it.
    – Sam
    Jul 3, 2015 at 16:28
  • Sam, thanks for further clarifying. The examples by you and Avon are great! Feel my puzzlement comes from seeking a more general notion of 'understanding'. I don't know how to put this into a question or decompose my puzzlement yet. Something for me to ponder more about. Thanks again!
    – Michael
    Jul 3, 2015 at 17:57

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