From Brian’s Desk: Three Stages of Understanding


For almost 20 years, I have been writing study materials and teaching exam-based courses for the CMA, CIA, CPA, CFA, ACCA, and CIMA exams. While writing materials and preparing for classes, I have recognized three stages of understanding that a person goes through when learning something new.

The first stage is what I call “memorization.” You have memorized the key terms, the steps that need to be performed, the formulas, and maybe some of the unique details for the topic you are learning. However, you may not understand exactly why the formulas work, why the steps are what they are, or how this topic connects to other topics, but you have memorized the basic facts. You would not be able to teach the topic to anyone else at this stage because you would only be stating facts that you memorized, and would not be able to explain anything.

I call the second stage “excessive understanding” when you understand all of the “whys” and “hows” about the topic. However, your understanding is not focused and you know a lot more than you need to. You start to understand that this topic is connected to other topics, but you may not be sure how. You would be able to teach this topic to someone else, but it would take a long time and the person you are teaching it to would be overwhelmed and confused because you would not be presenting information in a concise, logical, and progressive manner.

The third stage I call “efficient understanding” because you have taken all of the information that you knew at the second stage and condensed it down to what is important and can structure it in a way that is clear and understandable to someone else. When you have efficient understanding, you know why the formulas are what they are, you know why each step is important, you know how this topic is connected to others, and you can draw comparisons between this topic and others. Teachers who have efficient understanding are able to take a large topic and explain it in a clear and concise way. I would imagine that the teachers who you liked the most throughout your academic career likely had this level of understanding.

Bringing these stages back to your studies, you might be asking, “For an exam, what level of understanding do I need?” There will be some questions that you need only to have memorized the basics. However, there are not enough questions for you to pass that require only this level because many of the questions will require a deeper understanding.

If you understand the material at the second level, you should be able to answer most of the questions, but it will take you longer to answer than it should. Your biggest risk would be that you run out of time taking the exam because it takes you too long to answer each question.

When you have learned the material to the “efficient understanding” stage, you are in a great position to pass the exam. Not only do you know the material that you need to answer almost all of the questions correctly, but you will be able to answer the questions quickly and with enough time left over to review any questions you were not certain about.

At HOCK, we write our materials at the level of efficient understanding. This means that our materials will be shorter than materials written at the second level of understanding and longer than materials written at the first level. We focus on efficient understanding rather than page count so that all of our materials will prepare you to pass the exams on your first attempt.

Brian Hock, CMA, CIA