Student lexicon: “I don’t understand.”

In ParagraphCity this classroom statement is always said with raised, expectant brows and a heavy, anticipatory silence. If it is followed by any further words, its meaning is entirely different, but in the usage considered here, the phrase clearly places a burden on the instructor. “I don’t understand” is spoken, but implied is “and it’s your fault so go ahead, right now, and make me understand.”

I make it a rule, though, to avoid going down that rabbit hole, where awaits a world of excuses, blame, and confusion, but rarely a solid understanding of whatever it is the  student doesn’t understand. All this while the rest of the class is stunned into suspended animation so deep you will need to pull the plug in order to reboot the class. Largely this is all because (though the student who claims to not understand truly does not) the larger meaning is behind the words, in the possible other meanings “I don’t understand” has.

  • “I didn’t do the reading so I can’t be expected to understand, though I will politely listen and pretend if you will talk for a while about it.”
  • “I asked someone else about it and they were confusing, though they seemed to get it but now I feel inferior so if you will talk to only me for a while I will feel better.”
  • “I discovered that this will be kinda hard to do, but if I ask enough questions you will simplify it to the point where it gets easy, and though I have yet to recall anything you have said in class, I will be able to quote this oversimplified version back to you perfectly, three weeks hence.”
  • “By making the point that this concept is more than we can be expected to grasp, I will be justified later when I prove, by exam or homework or essay, that I really do not in fact understand.”
  • “It will take work for me to understand, and if any work is going to be done around here it will be the professor, not me, who’s doing it.”
  • “I understand this fine, but if you go on into new material it means more work, so the longer we can keep you talking about the things we already know, the better.”
  • “I like it when I’m the center of attention. That’s all.”

If the student means any of these things, there will often be one or two others who nod their heads and agree and may even utter ‘yeah’. I used to take that as a sign that I really had been obtuse and did need class discussion time; now I think it’s just that the students have complementary motives, one wanting the attention, another trying for an easier version, a third trying to dilute the class session.

What the statement posed this way almost never means is the obvious implication that student rarely see they are suggesting: “I’m really very stupid and easy concepts are so impossible for me to grasp that I shouldn’t be in the college classroom.” But don’t go there; it’s just not helpful, I’ve found, to point out what they are implying about their mental capacity.

Sometimes, though, not often, there’s a genuine confusion that’s pervading a student’s consciousness in the course. It may be associated with other kinds of self-doubt or lack of sleep or worries about family/job/security, and the failure to understand something plain is due to these rough waters. Like all the other situations, it’s a bad idea to address this in class.

For all these meanings, I talk with the “I don’t understand” student in an audience-free conference, the kind where I mainly ask questions.  But what about those times when the request for an explanation is genuine, how can we tell those? First I remember that these are not idiots, but sensible folks, and we cover truckloads of material that is likely to be new, surprising, unsettling and even difficult. People often don’t understand things, and we’re in the business of helping them understand, but it’s about helping them get things that take work to understand, their work. Those things do deserve class time.

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