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5 Ways to Better Understand Difficult Topics

Graphic: 5 ways to better understand difficult topics.

Wondering how to study a hard subject that has you or your child stumped? Certain topics may seem especially challenging, but there are strategies that can make even the most complex or unfamiliar concepts easier to digest. Let’s look at five of these strategies that can empower you to enjoy a more positive and productive study session.

1. Preview Chapters

When you put a new address you’ve never traveled to in your GPS, you may take a look at the route before pressing Start. Why would you do this rather than following the directions as they come? You probably feel more in control when you have an idea of the basic directions and where you’re headed. When the direction to “turn left here” pops up, it will make more sense to you. 

The same principle applies to reading difficult texts. Before you begin reading a new chapter, it helps to preview the directions, so to speak, by surveying the whole chapter. Students should scan headings to see what subtopics a text covers and look ahead at text features like illustrations and charts or tables. The practice of previewing can take just 1-3 minutes, so it’s a great investment of time. 

Essentially, you’re giving your brain a framework ahead of time so you have a place to put each new piece of information you take in. It’s a helpful practice students can get in the habit of doing whenever they’re about to read from a textbook — especially if they’re intimidated by the topic.

2. Build on Existing Knowledge

Whenever you’re learning something new, it helps to connect your new knowledge to existing knowledge. Use what you already know and understand as a foundation on which to build. Educators often refer to this existing knowledge as background or prior knowledge, and a wealth of educational research has emphasized just how important it is to helping students learn new things. 

One teacher and author describes background knowledge as “the glue that makes learning stick.” If you’re helping your child read a difficult text that feels overwhelming, help them connect new concepts to ones they already understand. For example, this could look like reviewing what you learned about the French Revolution last semester in a history class before you start reading “The Scarlett Pimpernel” for English class in order to set the stage. 

Graphic: Writing notes in simple language.

3. Write Notes in Simple Language

Whether you’re listening to a lecture or reading a textbook, taking notes can help you process and retain what you’re learning. To really unlock the benefits of note-taking, you should write your notes in a way that makes sense to you. Use simple language, rather than transcribing something word-for-word right from a textbook or slide deck. 

For example, here’s a sentence from the Encyclopedia Britannica on cell biology and a possible paraphrase a student could write down:

  • Encyclopedia: “Cooperative assemblies of similar cells form tissues, and a cooperation between tissues, in turn, forms organs, which carry out the functions necessary to sustain the life of an organism.”
  • Paraphrase: Cells that are alike can work together to make tissues, and these tissues work together to make organs, which keep living things alive.

To paraphrase a concept, you have to understand what it means, so this is a good way to test your comprehension at the time. If you’re struggling to paraphrase something, maybe it’s time to ask a clarifying question. Taking notes like this can also help you when you review your notes later to study for a test or work on an assignment. The simple language you use will make your notes easier to understand.

4. Practice Mental Spacing

When you want to force your brain to absorb new information, you may be tempted to read and reread and study for a long time until you feel like you’ve really “got it.” However, this cramming probably isn’t the best way to help you understand and remember the material. In the 19th century, a German psychologist named Hermann Ebbinghaus first researched and identified what’s known as the spacing effect. 

Researchers over time have confirmed that our brains retain information better when we learn in multiple, spread-out sessions rather than in one sitting. This practice of mental spacing is especially useful when you need to memorize information, like dates for a history test or vocabulary words for a Spanish quiz. Coming back to the information repeatedly tells your brain that the information is important, which makes you more likely to retain the information.

Mental spacing can also help you avoid the frustration that may come when you’re exhausting your brain with a long study session. When you feel mentally done, you’re probably not going to make much progress by pushing yourself. Take a break and come back to your textbook or notes when you’re ready.

5. Track Learning Goals

If you’re struggling with a concept in school, it helps to give yourself some learning goals. By creating specific, realistic goals, you can break up what you need to learn into manageable chunks and maintain motivation. For example, if you have to memorize the bones in the body for an anatomy test, you could set a goal to memorize the bones in the leg and foot before moving on to bones in the hand and arm, and so on.

For a middle schooler learning about the order of operations, you could help them by setting a goal to solve a set of problems that only uses a few operations, like multiplication and addition. Once the child has mastered solving these problems with the right order of operations, you can move onto some problems that incorporate other elements, like parentheses and exponents.

As you knock out each goal, celebrate the accomplishment. Write goals down so you can check them off individually and see the progress you’re making. This practice can turn a difficult lesson into a positive experience and help you learn how to love a subject with which you are struggling.

What to Know About CCA’s Personalized Learning for Difficult Concepts

Every learner is different. Some topics may easily click for your child, while other concepts may prove to be a bigger challenge. Because no two learners are alike, it makes sense that curricula should be flexible enough to meet each child where they are and help them achieve their learning goals.

At Commonwealth Charter Academy (CCA), we create personalized education programs for our learners. Each learner gets the advantage of quality resources, a variety of courses, attentive teachers, and the involvement of their family to customize a program that is tailored to the student. This approach to education helps students enjoy a positive and supportive learning environment.

Graphic: Learn more about CCA.

Learn More About Commonwealth Charter Academy

Student-centered schools should help their students and families understand how to learn difficult concepts and give learners the freedom they need to learn concepts at their own pace. If you’re interested in an online charter school in Pennsylvania and want to enjoy the benefits of a customized education, consider becoming part of the CCA community. Contact us today to learn more about personalized learning with CCA.


Commonwealth Charter Academy


January 18th, 2022


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